How to Feel with Toddlers

I talk a lot about feelings, relationships, and good communication on the blog and for good reason–a lot of the challenges of parenting revolve around behavior management. Whether you’re negotiating how your teen handles the responsibility of using the car or grocery store meltdowns, supportive emotional regulation, positive relationships, and a shared understanding about roles and responsibilities helps parent and child survive these challenges. As parents, we start laying these foundations right away. At birth, we promote trust and attachment through fulfilling needs and providing comfort. As infants start to gain independence through rolling, crawling, cruising, and finally walking, we support their confidence by allowing them the freedom to try their skills in a safe environment until they ultimately succeed on their own.

And then they start getting into trouble. They start deliberating disobeying. They start asserting their desires increasingly more strongly without yet having the reasoning strategies to manage conflicts. I can remember being horrified when my son came home sporting a bruise in the shape of a full set of teeth. And then came the day when another kid went home with teeth marks and my son came home with an incident report. Feelings come on strong and hot for small children. They don’t have filters yet to mitigate the physical and mental experience of emotions. Toddlers’ emotions are powerful and can be scary for children. Biting and tantrums aren’t the only risks of toddler emotional experiences; recurring strong emotions that are not resolved can turn into anxiety and sleeplessness, anger and aggression, or depression and disconnection.

The emotional storms of toddler-hood are inevitable, but you can help your toddler learn to check negative behaviors and build a foundation of emotional vocabulary and coping strategies that will help them develop their own emotional regulation and resilience later in life. Remember, their harmful behaviors like biting are an attempt to get the strong feelings inside their bodies out. Biting is one way they can do that. So if their strategy is effective at helping them manage their emotion, discipline without providing alternative strategies won’t be effective at stopping the behavior. Scaffolding emotional literacy with alternative coping strategies helps children develop independent emotional regulation. Things you can do to build emotional literacy and coping strategies:

1) Model feeling words. Cursing provides adults with an emotional pressure valve, but if you don’t want your kids to start using them as well, try expressing your actual emotion. You might feel silly stamping the ground with your foot and saying “I’m mad,” but when your kids starts doing it too (and they will), it’ll all be worth it. Knowing that your child’s emotions are gearing up before that die-cast truck in their hand gets thrown toward the populated sandbox is invaluable. Plus, as you model your emotions and why you have them, your child starts to learn that their emotions also arise from events, statuses, and conflicts and that’s the beginning of emotional problem solving!

2) Label your child’s feelings. Your kid won’t learn that the forces that cause emotions in you might be same as the ones that cause emotions in themselves unless you tell them. The more you use words to talk about emotions, the greater their capacity to recognize the emotions happening in their bodies. Once they have the vocabulary to express their feelings, they can participate in explaining the story of an emotional experience. Naming the emotion helps your child have power over it. No more is it gale force winds making them want to tear the walls down, it’s frustration. And they are frustrated because their sibling isn’t letting them ride the merry-go-round.

3) Play emotion games. Make a face and ask your child to guess what emotion you’re feeling. As they get older, say closer to three years old, ask them why you’re feeling that way and make up a story. You might find the story they make up closely resembles an event earlier that day or that week. If so, celebrate! As children develop the capacity to remember, they sometimes hang on to emotionally charged events. Providing them with opportunities to work through that event after the fact helps them understand and process those lingering emotions in a productive way. It also gives you an opportunity to adjust their conclusions. This game also helps them recognize emotions in other people and develop empathy.

4) Name other people’s emotions. If there is another child at the playground screaming their head off, your child is paying attention. This is another opportunity to name and explain emotional experiences. Strong emotional experiences can be frightening for children even when it isn’t their own or someone close to them. Helping them recognize that the emotions have boundaries and will pass helps them feel less uncomfortable and frightened.

5) Include feelings in your bedtime routine. Talking about feelings normalizes the experience of having them. When your children understand that feelings are a normal part of life, they are less likely to be anxious about them. Talking about the day’s highlights and disappointments provides an opportunity for the whole family to connect with each other and reinforces lessons learned that day.

6) Read books! The library is a wonderful resource for feelings literacy. If there is a particular feeling your child is struggling with or a particular conflict they have a hard time managing (such as sharing), reading stories about other kids or animals struggling with those same things can be extremely helpful. As a adults struggling with issues, we experience a lot of validation when we hear someone else tell a similar story of struggle. Well, kids do too. Children often have an easier time relating to characters in books, it’s less emotionally demanding to read a book than interact with a real person and the interaction has a set ending.

You might also check out Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. I rarely recommend media, but this is one show that is packed full of useful little strategies on emotional regulation. I can’t tell you how often I’ve sung the jingles. Even if you can’t hit the notes, there’s something about singing that causes kids to stop and pay attention. “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to 4.” I was singing this long before my child could follow through on the advice, but just singing the strategy was often enough to stem the emotional tide.

So back to the kid who bites to express their emotions. They need another strategy. You might ask them to pause, then help them name their feeling and explain why they have it. Then offer a solution. Maybe that looks like finding a different toy, or thinking about a different way to accomplish a task they are working on. You’ll end up doing all the problem solving, but that will be an important model for their own problem solving later on.

Sometimes emotions are so strong, they take over your child’s body and you can’t do any talking or problem solving until their able to work the emotion out. My own son responded incredibly well to a game we call “Shake _the feeling_ Out.” We name the emotion together and then he names a part of his body that’s feeling that emotion. Then we shake that body part while singing about shaking whatever feeling out of whatever body part. Think Hokey Pokey. Usually, we go through a number of body parts and then, with smiles and a big sigh, we can sit down to talk about what led to that big feeling. My kid takes the reins now and initiates the game, but at his 2nd birthday, he was basically just watching me make a fool of myself (bewilderment can definitely interrupt tantrums at this age). He needed a lot of prompting, intervention and guidance, but now he finds ways to express himself and seek out alternative strategies.

At our house, we have a little poster of different feelings and another poster with coping strategies. He might be so upset that he can’t say the words, but he can point to the feeling on the wall. Or he might be mad and trying to hit me and I can go to the poster of coping strategies and ask if he’d like to try counting to five or stretching his body or taking a deep breath. He makes poor choices with his feelings all the time, but we have a way to talk about it and I can already see him realizing that he has the power to choose what to do with his feelings.

As kids get older, a lot of these strategies remain useful but take on more nuance and complexity. For in-depth strategies on social-emotional challenges, Understood has a wonderful set of resources for older children.

Here’s a link to a free, printable emotions chart.

This blog post drew on content from You can find an article on specific, simple coping strategies here.

One coping strategy that experts agree won’t help in the long run–screen time. When plopping your kid in front a screen becomes your go-to solution for managing difficult moments, they aren’t learning how to deal with difficult emotions but how to avoid them. Additionally, you are sending the message that you won’t connect with them when they’re feeling upset and that will hurt your relationship down the road. If you’re at the end of your rope and this is something that you’ve done a couple times, cut yourself some slack. Just remember to circle back with your child to talk about what happened.