Helping Toddlers Learn and Cope With Their Big Emotions
As parents, we often overlook the fact that our toddlers may be small but their emotions can be big. They are after all still very young, and trying to learn about how the world around them works while coping with their own developmental growth. All these can be very overwhelming and distressing indeed.
To make matters worse, they do not always know how to articulate their needs and feelings. In fact, they are still at the stage of learning to recognize their own feelings and emotions.
Very often, bad behavior and tantrums are a toddler’s desperate attempts to communicate. They have such a hard time expressing their feelings so they ended up being frustrated and aggressive towards those around them.
How Can We Help To Boost Our Children’s Emotional Intelligence?
To raise emotionally intelligent kids, we mean to help them develop the ability to identify, express and control their emotions.
The very first step of this development is to teach them on how to identify and express their feelings. If they are unable to express or describe their feelings, it will be even more difficult for us to help them deal with it.
Moreover, in order to teach them to be empathic towards others, they need to be able to first recognize the emotions in themselves and others.
1. Express Our Own Feelings Verbally
Toddlers learn by observing and modelling after us in terms of how to act and what to say under different circumstances.
For example, if we curse when we are angry, they repeat our words without knowing what they actually mean. Yet they often get scolded or told not to use these ‘bad’ words. Such lack of consistency can be very confusing for them. Hence, it is important to watch your language even when you are feeling mad.
Instead, always attempt to verbally express your feelings. It may seem unnatural at first to articulate your feelings, but it goes a long way in helping your toddler build up his/her vocabulary of emotional words to use in the right context. Moreover, this helps them to be aware of how we are feeling.
“I am so frustrated with myself now. I accidentally spoilt the blender but I can’t get it working again after trying to fix it for so long. I’m going for a walk outside first to calm down before I try again. Would you help me later?”
“I’m really worried now as Daddy is having a fever and not feeling well.”
“I’m really excited that we are going to the mall later.”
2. Ask For Help
When you are working on something with your children or navigating through your negative emotions, ask for help from your children. Not only does it help them build their self-esteem and confidence, it also sends the message to the child that it is alright to seek help when they feel that they can’t solve the problem by himself/herself.
This can be a physical activity, emotional problem or difficult social situation. The idea is to always keep this channel of communication open so that they can always come directly to you for help.
3. Label Your Children’s Feelings For Them
Helping young toddlers put a name or label to the emotions helps them to associate these words to the feelings. This is the first step in helping them learn to identify their feelings.
For example, your toddler is growling and shouting. If you know the reason, you can help to put words to their feelings. “You are mad now because your brother snatched your cookie away.”
You can also take a step further and bring the toddler to the mirror so that they can see their own facial expressions. This allows them to link the visual image of their mood, the emotional word and their feelings together.
As they grow older, they may even correct you if you label their emotions wrongly!
4. Acknowledge Their Emotions, Show Empathy And Let Them Know That You Care
Beyond labelling their feelings, it is important for parents like us to communicate to our children in such a way that they understand these emotions are normal, and that you care for them.
Acknowledge, validate and empathize with their feelings. Do not view feelings as a problem.
We should let our children feel safe about expressing their emotions openly, whether it is a positive or negative feeling. Do not talk the children out of their feelings nor downplay their emotions.
Pay attention, listen openly and calmly when your child shares their big emotions or difficult feelings. Sometimes what they need from you is not solution, but just empathy. Young toddlers whose feelings are often ignored or downplayed, tend to become aggressive or turn their emotions inwards and become depressed or anxious.
5. Help Toddlers Build The Resilience And Skills To Manage The Emotions
After acknowledging and making toddlers feel that their feelings are valued, it now opens doors for us to teach them how to cope with and manage these emotions. This includes a calm down plan if they are agitated.
First and foremost, always set clear guidelines and house rules that no one should behave in a destructive and hurtful manner, which includes hurting others physically or with words.
When they are agitated and tensed up, let your child be aware of their body signs such as a tense body, clenched teeth and fist, and racing heart. Introduce to them the idea of taking a few breaths or counting slowly from 1 to 10 to calm down before reacting.
Try to verbally articulate what they are feeling and what they wish would happen. Even though what they wish for may not always be acceptable or possible, this provides an opportunity for further conversations and problem-solving lessons. This are necessary life lessons that all young children need to go through to work out peaceful solutions with others. Not everything will go their way in life after all. But the kids are still young, and they need our support to navigate through this process.
For instance, when your 2-year-old is very upset that his friend is going home after a play session, avoid telling him not to be sad. The bad feelings do not go away and toddlers are not yet able to see beyond the immediate.
Instead, try “I see that you are sad that Emily has to go home now. You enjoyed playing with her and wished she could continue to stay here and play… But Emily has to go home now for dinner. Shall we go to the door to say goodbye and make plans for her to visit our house again?”
Or when you see that your 2-year-old is frustrated after struggling for a while to put on his own pants, you can try “I see that you are frustrated because you want to put on your own pants but you are having some difficulty. Would you like me to help you or would you like to give it another shot?”
For example, “Mommy loves you and I know that you are angry with your brother snatching your cookie. But I don’t like the way you yell at your brother.”
6. Help Toddlers Identify Other People’s Emotions
As mentioned earlier, toddlers are great observers and they learn a lot by observing. When you see someone nearby who is displaying a strong emotion, try labelling the emotion for your toddler.
For example, if a little girl is crying at the supermarket alone, you can say “You see the little girl over there? She is crying… she must be scared. I wonder why she is scared. Is she lost? Where is her mommy?”
Not only does it help to build up their vocabulary of emotional words, it also helps them to build up their ability to identify other people’s feelings, read into the social context and boost their empathy towards others.
7. Talk About Each Other’s Day
During dinner or before bed-time, you can create a family routine of having everyone share their day. Have your child share something that made them feel good (happy, excited etc) and also something that made them feel bad (scared, angry, sad etc).
8. Play Feeling Games Or Songs
You can play games like the adapted version “Simon Says”. Instead of giving the usual instructions, for example, you can say “Simon Says, look sad”.
You can also play a game of guessing the feeling. Take turns to make facial expressions while the others guess what feeling is being shown. You can play this game near the mirror so that your child not only see your expressions, but also their own.
9. Read Books On Feelings
I love reading to the kids. Reading books on feelings to your toddlers is also an informal, interactive and fun way of teaching them about emotions and how to react/behave. There are a lot of books available on Amazon.
Here are some recommendations:
This is a positive, friendly and encouraging book that reminds the young children that there are many uses for their voices and they can use their quiet voice instead of yelling. “Think before you yell, and use your words well!”
This book focuses on positive reinforcement to encourage the toddlers to use their little hands in peaceful and helpful ways. Combined with consistency in our daily life, this serves as great reminders for our young toddlers that their little hands are not for hitting or hurting others.
This is a great interactive book to introduce new emotional words to our children. The illustrations and examples are also very useful in initiating conversations.
This is a great book for older toddlers (age 3-5) to help kids learn that it is ok and normal to feel angry, but it is not ok to be hurtful through words or actions. It talks about situations where the kids may get angry, the feeling of being angry, what you might want to do in anger and why these actions may not be desirable before guiding the kids into calming down and positively working through the anger.
It is vital that we parents play a supportive role in our child’s journey of growth and development. Helping our young toddlers learn to identify and manage their emotions not only helps to reduce their meltdowns and tantrums, but also boost their emotional intelligence. This lays the foundation for us to teach them to be empathic to others.