Helping Little Ones Cope with Big Feelings: Teaching Emotions to Your Toddler

01/28/2020
Michelle Oster

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The development that occurs in a young child’s mind is not only remarkable, but also overwhelmingly crucial for his or her growth. Research shows that children develop 85% of their core brain structure by the time they are five years old. This includes learning how to manage their emotions and behaviors, as well as their ability to focus and sustain their attention. While some children will naturally learn how to self-regulate, for most, this is a skill they must be taught, just as reading and writing.

Helping children learn to express their emotions appropriately and self-soothe leads to happier households with less emotional outbursts and also creates more independent children. Children will start to take responsibility for their actions and show respect to others. They will begin to develop a healthy sense of self and develop the ability to maintain positive relationships with peers and adults. Supporting your child’s social-emotional development helps your child establish emotional intelligence, self-control, and social competence. This helps children learn to act in ways that prepare them for life-long success and happiness.

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Here are some ways that, as parents, you can help support your toddler’s social-emotional development at home:

1. Model: To teach self-regulation, we need to exemplify this trait ourselves.

At home, try your best to show your child how you regulate your emotions, behaviors, and attention. The old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do,” does not apply here! Self-talking is a great way to model for your child.  This means intentionally describing what you are thinking, seeing, hearing, touching or doing. The goal of self-talking is to link words to your actions. For example, “Oh no, I dropped my water and made a mess; I feel frustrated, so I’m going to take a deep breath to calm down. I will get paper towels and clean it up.”

2. Guide: Children learn best when they can interact with a responsive, caring adult.

Young children are like sponges, soaking up and learning all the time. One way parents can enrich their child’s learning at home is by using parallel talk, or linking words directly to a child’s current actions or experiences. For example, “I see you are smiling while you build with LEGOs; you look happy.” Try becoming a sportscaster for your child, narrating a play-by-play account of what he or she is seeing, feeling, or doing. Parallel talk gives children the language necessary to evaluate their feelings and experiences. You are giving them the words they need to begin to do this themselves, therefore setting them up to become fluent communicators.

3. Listen: Listen first, then respond.

Resist the temptation to minimize what your child is going through. We need to show children that we understand them, and we are right here with them in the middle of all these big emotions. Do not deny their feelings with phrases like: “You are okay” or “It’s going to be okay.” Instead, we need to help our children work through their emotions, help them calm down, and empathize with them, before we can successfully address their behavior. For example, “I hear you crying. You are upset with Mommy for saying no to having a cookie before dinner. It is okay to be upset with Mommy.” While talking, gently touch or hug your child. Once he or she calms down, your child will be more receptive to what you have to say. For example, “I know you really want a cookie. I want you to have that cookie too. You can have it, but after dinner. What do you want to eat first, the chicken or the rice?” Be careful not to assume the worst when your child runs up to you crying. Instead, try to become a detective. Be curious and chase the why. This tells our children that we are on their side, that we care about them and their feelings, and that we are here to help.

Modeling, guiding, and listening to your child will help her build her emotional intelligence and social skills. If you are enrolling your child in nursery or preschool, be sure to ask how they teach social-emotional skills. Understanding your emotions is the first step to being able to perceive and attempt to understand the feelings of others. When one can fluently communicate his feelings, he is better equipped to confidently and independently navigate life.

Children’s Book Recommendations

  • The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
  • The Feelings Book by Todd Parr
  • When Miles Got Mad by Samantha Kurtzman-Counter
  • Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Ed Emberley
  • Listening to My Body by Gabi Garcia
  • Learning to Get Along Series by Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed

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