3 Healthy Ways to Help Your Toddler Understand and Express Emotions
Updated: Jan 19, 2021
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Emotions are hard!
Even for the most mature of us, experiencing extreme emotions can be hazardous at best; for a tiny human experiencing these emotions for the first time AND potentially not having the words to explain what they are feeling or why, it can be disastrous. Most toddlers make it very clear when they are experiencing an intense emotion through tantrums and alternate outbursts but not every little one expresses their big emotions in this way so you may need to pay extra close attention to the experiences of your ‘little.’
The movie Inside out is a great way to introduce your ‘little’ to the concept of emotions and expressing them. While it is a bit advanced for most toddlers, there is enough superficial information linked with entertainment value to give a basic emotional guideline with the help of a parent - they don't rate it PG, parental guidance, for no reason! Also, you can link the movie with some of these fun Inside Out activities to help your child better understand their emotions.
In addition to watching that - amazing! - movie - and crying LOTS of happy/sad tears - you can - and should - also try these 3 healthy ways to help your toddler understand and express emotions:
Lead by example
Just like your toddler, you will be placed in difficult and trying situations - often caused by your toddler - that may stir some unfavourable emotions within. If you respond with outbursts - maybe not to the degree of a full blown tantrum, but close - that involve yelling and generally negative behaviours, then they will mimic that negative reaction in their own way while dealing with emotion.
True Story: Up all night with fussy, gassy baby BUT she is sleeping - finally - come early morning. Toddler comes into bedroom wide awake at half-past-stupid and says - loudly - WAKE UP, WAKE UP, WAKE UP! - and the day begins. The outfit chosen by the toddler is not weather appropriate - summer dress in 10°C weather - so momma has to say no to her choice: meltdown ensues. Cue breakfast with oatmeal spilled all over the floor and, later at great grandma’s, tea with milk on a clean rug. All before 10am.
In order for the day to progress in the least bit civilly, the correct actions had to be taken despite over-tiredness and slowly cracking patience - and all while juggling the needs of a 5mo. This is exemplified best with the 90-10 Rule example but this is how I managed that fateful day:
Although toddler definitely did get scolded for waking up baby, it was paired with an example of what to do differently next time - which I’m proud - and slightly surprised - to say has been done ever since! The outfit situation was difficult because reasoning about temperature with a 2yo is futile as they don’t fully understand the concept of long term cause and effect so the temperature issue was explained simply and a firm, but gentle, “no” was given, followed by a 10 minute - at least - wait out as she screamed and flailed until a different outfit was suitably chosen.
We had planned a nice outing. A nature walk with a group of kids and a picnic at the park but the oatmeal all over the floor was the last straw for this momma - sometimes it takes more, sometimes less, to break me.. but this time it was oatmeal; even if it was an accident - if goofing off at the table can be considered an accident… at least it wasn't intentional - but this tired and exasperated momma had to stop everything, close her eyes, and take a nice LOOONNG breath when that oatmeal hit the floor. - Note that my ‘little’ knows, full well, what belly breathing is used for. See below. - After the necessary clean up, our plans changed. We're going to great grandma's!
Sometimes, when you know your patience is at an all time low and you don't think you will be able to keep your cool… pawn your kids off on someone else.
What I’m trying to say is that it's okay to ask for help. While we were at great grandma's house I barely needed to tend to either of my kiddos because they were being loved on so much - given the attention they wanted and needed but that I didn't have enough to give. So, when my toddler accidentally spilled her milk all over the living room rug, I was able to handle the situation a lot more calmly than I would have if I had been solo all morning. A quick “oops! Let's clean that up for great grandma” and a collaborative effort to soak up the damage made the incident a lot more bearable for all of us.
Put a word to what they're feeling
This notion comes with the added sentiment of acknowledging their feelings. That means, even if it seems they are having a big reaction to something you may see as meaningless, you need to acknowledge the fact that it is very meaningful to them.
There was a time when, every time my toddler would experience difficulty completing a task - of her own making! Like, fit this giant stuffed dog into this tiny purse, or try to stick a now non-sticky sticker to her drawing for the 50th time - she would simply scream like a banshee and scatter everything near her all around. It was very tedious work getting her to refocus and listen to reason while cleaning the mess of toys and burst eardrums.
Watching her try - and fail - to complete these tasks clued me into the fact that she was indeed frustrated. That's a difficult emotion to experience but here she was, at the tender age of 2, experiencing frustration that her dolls head wouldn't fit through the leg hole of her stroller - why she needed her to go in that way, I haven't the foggiest, but it seemed vital to her at the time.
Next step was catching her in the middle of experiencing that emotion - takes a lot of attentiveness to your little’s environment, but it’s doable - and giving her a word for it. Along with that, she was encouraged to ask for help when she felt that way and that momma and daddy would be there for her when she struggled - two birds with one stone: emotional control and trust in her parents’ love.
As with all new things, the word ‘frustrated’ was then used - and misused - for a large number of different sentiments like “I'm frustrated at those curtains” and “I'm frustrated to sleep.” I'm sure she was experiencing some sort of emotion toward her nap and those curtains but frustration doesn't seem like it should have been the right terminology.
Update::: Our newest emotional discovery is ‘disappointed,’ which is actually super helpful for tantrum avoidance jfyi. Now that my toddler is turning into a threenager who is better able to reason, I'm getting a little more blunt with my responses. Example: LO: “I'm disappointed that aunty doesn’t want to play with me.” (Aunty is a 12yo and has been playing with my LO all morning) - Me : “yeah, that's too bad but it happens sometimes.” Followed by an alternative activity to do solo.
Give them an outlet
After all is said and done, the emotion isn’t just going to - poof! - disappear once a word is put to it. I mean, does knowing your jealous of something make you less jealous? No. However, you can choose to express that jealousy in a healthy way by praising the person or item and working hard in your aspirations to attain or come closer to being like the item you value so highly. It’s not easy, but it’s better than doing something ugly like holding spite, anger, and hatred in your heart.
While a toddler may not be able to rationalize in the same way as an adult when experiencing their big emotions, there are a multitude of ways that we can offer assistance in managing how they feel. What gets suggested will vary depending on the child and emotion being experienced but here are a few examples:
Yell into a pillow
Belly breath (Sesame street Colbie Caillat song)
Take a walk in a quiet room or in the backyard (somewhere safe but alone)
Talk about it
You can find more examples and easy-to-understand emotional explanations - toddler style - by going to my webpage within the next month and subscribing to my content - no junk mail, promise.
Sometimes there are ways to prevent the big emotions from becoming, well, BIG. We all handle stressors much better when our minds and bodies are relaxed and when we have taken full advantage of a physical, mental or emotional outlet - which comes in many forms; for me it’s wine and mom gossip with my momma friends, for others it might be exercise, each to their own.
While I am a huge advocate of getting kids into organized sports for the purpose of instilling values such as teamwork, practice, and time management, among other skills, I also hold the belief that children should have as much opportunity for free play as possible. Free play allows them to learn different, but overlapping, skills such as leadership, self-advocacy, and creativity - to name a few - that can guide them through their young life. Both help to regulate and manage emotions in their own way.It's all about balance between the structure of organized fun and the flexibility of free play that truly makes a difference. Although both can be great resources for mental and emotional release, The Thoughtful Parent writes in support of the benefits of free play in one of her blog posts.
Even with these tips and pointers, I feel the need to drive the point home once more:
Emotions are HARD!
Try not to expect something of your ‘little’ that you couldn't expect of yourself under similar circumstance. Try to find outlets for you and your family to stay in a healthy emotional space, either together or alone, and try to take full and frequent advantage of whatever works for you. It is so very important for the mental and emotional health of your family and community as a whole.
It takes a Village.
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