Toddlers are little people with big emotions that they don’t always have the words for. Play gives them a chance to explore and express their feelings and also practise managing them. This is good for your child’s self-regulation, behaviour and relationships.
And you have a crucial role in your toddler’s play and development. Through play, you can help your toddler understand what they’re feeling and why. For example, if your toddler is sad because their toy is broken, you can say, “I can see you’re sorry that your toy is broken. It’s OK – we can fix it.”
Kids experience complex feelings just like adults. They get frustrated, excited, nervous, sad, jealous, frightened, worried, angry and embarrassed.
However, young kids usually don’t have the vocabulary to talk about how they are feeling. Instead, they communicate their feelings in other ways.
Kids can express their feelings through facial expressions, through their body, their behaviour and play. Sometimes they may act out their feelings in physical, inappropriate or problematic ways.
From the moment kids are born, they start learning the emotional skills they need to identify, express and manage their feelings. They know how to do this through their social interactions and relationships with important people in their lives, such as parents, grandparents and carers.
Being a parent means you’ve got a significant role to play in helping kids understand their feelings and behaviours. Kids need to be shown how to manage their emotions in positive and constructive ways. Online baby product directory at My Baby Nursery.
What to expect from toddler emotions
Your toddler will probably:
- become more aware of being an individual at 1-2 years
- start to feel fear, embarrassment, empathy and envy around 1-2 years
- begin to be more independent and want to do things without your help
- be able to wait their turn and control some emotions at 1-2 years
- start to say how they feel – for example, your toddler might say ‘ow’ for pain or ‘I did it!’ for pride at 1-2 years
- Start to compare their behaviour with other children’s – for example, your toddler might tell you that they waited their turn, but others didn’t.
Your toddler is also learning about a big new emotion – frustration. Your child is likely to:
- get frustrated and cry, yell or hit out when they don’t get their way
- not understand why they can’t have what they want when they want it
- be quite bossy about what they do want
- find it hard to stop playing or to change activities
- struggle to keep their frustration under control sometimes – you might see some tantrums.
By the age of three years, most toddlers start to feel emotions like guilt and shame. Listening to your child when they want to talk and giving them plenty of reassurance and support can help your child understand these new feelings.
Emotional development stages
Babies start to feel basic emotions such as joy, anger, sadness and fear. Later, as kids begin to develop a sense of self, they experience more complex emotions like shyness, surprise, delight, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride and empathy.
Very young children’s emotions are mainly made up of physical reactions – such as their heart racing or butterflies in their stomach – and behaviour.
As they grow, children develop the ability to recognise feelings. Their emotions are also increasingly inﬂuenced by their thinking. They become more aware of their feelings and better able to identify and understand those of other people.
The experience of emotion includes:
- physical responses, including heart rate, breathing, hormone levels
- feelings that children recognise and learn to name
- thoughts and judgements associated with feelings
- action signals, such as an urge to approach, escape or ﬁght.
- Many things inﬂuence the ways that children express emotions, both through words and behaviour.
These inﬂuences include:
- values and beliefs about appropriate and inappropriate ways of expressing emotions that children learn from parents and other family members
- how effectively children’s emotional needs are usually met
- children’s temperaments
- emotional behaviours that children have learned through observation or experience
- The extent to which families and children are under various kinds of stress.
Why do children need help from adults?
We can all feel overwhelmed at times. Over time, we get to know what situations or experiences are likely to upset us and how we can manage our emotions when these arise. We continue to learn about what concerns us and find new ways to handle our emotions throughout our lives.
Children also have times when they can feel overwhelmed or out of control, but they’ve had less time and opportunity to learn about managing their feelings because of their age. When adults respond to children’s cues and help them manage feelings of uncertainty, helplessness, or being overwhelmed, kids feel safe and trust that they have someone to help when they need it.
Gradually children learn to manage their emotions from their experiences with warm, responsive and trusted adults. When children feel calm and safe, they’re more likely to focus and maintain their attention, which is central to their overall development.
Giving kids a hand with emotions
You can help kids move from a negative state where they’re feeling upset or distressed to a more positive one – where they feel safe, calm and ready to interact with their world positively.
Try a few of the tips below – over time; you’ll figure out what works best for your child.
- Helping them slow their breathing down – by blowing bubbles or pretending to blow out birthday candles – and encouraging them to take deep breaths.
- Encouraging children to imagine they are floppy ragdoll and to give themselves a shake. This helps release the tension they might be holding in their body.
- Assisting the children to imagine and pretend they are a favourite animal taking a nap. This encourages kids to close their eyes and relax.
- Developing a strategy to use when they’re feeling out of control, such as having a calm thought or picture; taking time out by reading a calming story together; or talking with you or another supportive adult about how they feel.
- Expressing their emotions in productive ways – this might include drawing, using playdough or acting their feelings out with toys.
- Increasing their ‘feel good’ hormones through exercise, positive social experiences, a healthy diet, and plenty of rest.
What you can do to help your child develop their emotional skills
Here are some of the ways you can help your child learn about and express their feelings:
Tune into cues
Sometimes feelings can be hard to identify. Tune into your child’s feelings by looking at their body language, listening to what they’re saying and observing their behaviour. Figuring out what they feel and why means you can help them identify, express and manage those feelings better.
Behind every behaviour is a feeling
Try to understand the meaning and feeling behind your child’s behaviour. You can help your child find other ways to express that feeling once you know what drives the behaviour.
Name the feeling
Help your child name their feelings by giving them a label. Naming feelings is the first step in helping kids learn to identify them. It allows your child to develop an emotional vocabulary so they can talk about their feelings.
Identify feelings in others
Provide lots of opportunities to identify feelings in others. You might ask your child to reflect on what someone else may be feeling. Cartoons or picture books are a great way to discuss feelings and helps kids learn how to recognise other people’s emotions through facial expressions.
Be a role model
Kids learn about feelings and how to express them appropriately by watching others. Show your child how you’re feeling about different situations and how you deal with those feelings.
Encourage with praise
Praise your child when they talk about their feelings or adequately express them. Not only does it show that emotions are normal and it’s OK to talk about them, but it also reinforces the behaviour, so they are likely to repeat it.
Listen to your child’s feelings
Stay present and resist the urge to make your child’s bad feelings go away. Support your child to identify and express their feelings, so they are heard. When emotions are minimised or dismissed, they will often be expressed in unhealthy ways.
Sometimes kids don’t have the words to express how they feel and act out these feelings in problematic ways. My Baby Nursery is your one-stop baby product store.
Teach your child to act on feelings by:
- Taking some deep breaths
- Asking for help or support
- Walking away and taking time out
- Finding a different way to do things
- Taking time to relax before trying again
- Trying to solve the problem with words.
- Saying what they feel instead of acting it out
- Talking with a grown-up about what is happening
- Spending time with a loved one or asking for a hug or cuddle
- Describing what they are feeling or reactions in their body
Your child might hit or throw toys when angry or frustrated. They might have a hard time settling down after an exciting day. Use this as a learning opportunity to teach your child to express their feelings positively.
Play ideas to encourage toddler emotions
Play is one of the best ways for young children to practise understanding, expressing and managing their feelings. Great ways to encourage this include:
- playing and sharing with children of all ages
- imaginative play with puppets, toys or old clothes – for example, your child could pretend to care for a baby doll or bravely rescue toys from a tree
- singing and dancing – for example, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands
- messy play with sand, mud or paints – your toddler can happily slap sand or stomp in the ground, or make big, angry paint strokes
- reading stories that feature characters who are experiencing feelings that your toddler is also going through – for example, the When I’m Feeling series by Trace Moroney
- outdoor play in a park or open space where your toddler can run, tumble or roll around to let out their emotions
- Letting your toddler take the lead with play. But even when your child wants to lead, you still have an essential role in helping your child cope with strong emotions like frustration or disappointment.
So how can you support your children to manage their distress in times of difficulty?
Manage your stress
The most important one is to manage your stress. Research has found that when parents are stressed, their parenting style becomes more unsupportive. Things to especially be aware of are job dissatisfaction (try to keep work and home life separate), marital dissatisfaction for fathers (be open with your partner about your feelings, and consider couples counselling), and perception of home chaos for mothers (put a routine into place, ask for support).
Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Engage in behaviours that you find relaxing and de-stressing. Show your children that this can be a way to manage distress or even traumatic events. They will learn this from you.
When your child comes to you upset or becomes angry, sad or afraid — always stay calm and regulate your own emotions. Depending on the situation, this can demonstrate to your child that:
- They can always come to you with their problems without fear of your reaction.
- No matter how upset they are, you (their parents) are a source of stability.
- That is a very distressing situation, and it is possible not to let your emotions run away with you.
- That when emotions like anger or anxiety visit, it is best to respond calmly and logically.
These last two can be related to modelling, demonstrating your behaviour, the most appropriate way to act. For example, if your child speaks to you in anger, you might conceivably start to feel angry yourself. This would be the perfect situation to demonstrate appropriate anger management and communication skills to your child.
Talk with your child.
Talking with your children about their fears and concerns is the main thing that enables them to make sense of their experiences. Talking things through also helps them feel safe and regular and begin to cope with events happening around them.
Notice we said talk “with” your child. This doesn’t mean telling, teaching or advising; this means listening and responding.
You might want to try starting a conversation with your child when they are likely to talk by letting them know you are interested in hearing what is going on for them. Otherwise, you might need to wait for them to come to you. Any comment they make can be an opportunity to explore your child’s inner world.
Let them express whatever they’re thinking. They will, if given a chance — you might just need to curb your urge to jump in and start problem-solving, interpreting or giving advice. Don’t interrupt them. Encourage them to continue with minimal prompts — really allow them to express all their ideas before you respond. Reflect them on what you’ve heard to check your understanding and let them know you are listening.
Sometimes, all someone needs are to feel heard. To have someone look into their eyes and say, with total empathy, “I know.” This can be far, far more valuable than any “quick fix” you could suggest.
However, that’s not to say that it’s not helpful to offer your own opinion. Support them to come up with their solutions. Remind them you are always there for them.
Make home a safe space.
Home is a refuge from the outside world. Do what you can to ensure that the home is a haven — comfortable and predictable. Establish and maintain a daily and weekly routine, as children of all ages need stability. Plan a night where everyone engages in a family activity. If your lifestyles are busy, this can be even more important to continue building and maintaining connections between family members.
On the other hand, if your child wants to be alone for a bit, there should be a private space they can go to.
Be aware of your children’s moods.
You know your child better than anybody else. Watch for signs that they are experiencing stress, fear or anxiety. This is particularly important if the family is under pressure, if there has been a traumatic event, or you know something else is going on.
When a child is experiencing difficult emotions, their behaviour will change. Things to watch for include:
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Changes in appetite.
- Irritability or moodiness.
- Stomach aches
If your child has been under stress or has experienced some form of trauma, then these symptoms are typical and should begin to disappear after a few months.
To help them through it, encourage your children to express their feelings — to let them out.
Invite your child to put their feelings into words by talking about them. If it’s something, they aren’t ready to talk about, writing about it in a journal can be a good stepping stone. Some children may find it helpful to express their feelings through art.
If your child doesn’t feel confident being “creative” in these ways, one more straightforward way is to pick out different music and songs that match the way the child feels inside. The “how” isn’t so important. What is important is that your child doesn’t bottle it all up.
What parents can do to support their children
Stop and listen when your children come to talk to you. Your children will know if you are listening if you:
- Stop what you are doing.
- Look directly at them as they speak.
- Allow them to speak uninterrupted.
- Clarify what they are saying and how they feel by saying such things as, “It sounds like you are feeling worried that….”
- You may then ask them what they need to enable them to feel better.
- Listen to what they say, as they will let you know if they just need a cuddle, reassurance or a more detailed explanation.
Be a role model
Children observe their parents’ body language (posture, facial expressions and tone of voice and choice of language) and listen to conversations in the home. Remember that how you cope with stress is being noticed by your children. It is helpful for children to discuss issues with each other in calm ways and agree to take a break if tension rises between them.
Get social support
Keeping yourselves and your children involved in community sport and social activities also helps. It’s a way to help your child to understand that drought is a shared problem and that it is good to focus on other things, get engaged and have fun. Getting connected with the community is also beneficial for your mental health and family relationships.
Allow expression of feelings.
When children experience complicated feelings such as sadness, anger, anxiety and stress, they will express them differently. The best way to support your child at these times is to listen and help them to identify their feelings. Provide reassurance through cuddles and let them know it is OK and normal to be sad and to express their feelings however they feel appropriate.
Engage in self-care
Pay attention to your feelings and thoughts as they arise. Manage them sooner rather than later by talking about them with family or friends, your local GP or community service. This can benefit your children, as you are more likely to get things in perspective and remain calm.
When to seek professional support for your child
If you notice that your child is:
- Becoming withdrawn and less interested in socialising.
- Less interested in activities that they usually enjoy.
- Experiencing changes in sleeping or eating habits.
- Experiencing failing grades at school.
- More irritable than usual.
It may be time to seek professional help.
You play an essential role in your child’s emotional development.
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Helping your child identify their feelings is the first step in assisting them in managing them. Kids who can identify, understand, express and manage a wide range of emotions experience long term benefits to their mental health and wellbeing.