helpingtoddlersemotionsIt wasn’t so long ago that the conventional wisdom was that babies were pretty much blobs who didn’t think or feel much before they could speak in words around the age of two.  The idea that a six-month-old could feel fear or anger, no less sadness and grief, was preposterous.  But thanks to an explosion in research on infancy in the last 30 years, we now know that babies and toddlers are deeply feeling beings. Starting in the earliest months of life, well before they can use words to express themselves, babies have the capacity to experience peaks of joy, excitement and elation. They also feel fear, grief, sadness, hopelessness and anger—emotions that many adults understandably still find it hard to believe, or accept, that very young children can experience. Research has also shown that children’s ability to effectively manage their full range of emotions—also known as self-regulation—is one of the most important factors for success in school, work and relationships into the long-term.

So a critical first step in helping your child learn to cope with her feelings is not to fear the feelings, but embrace them—all of them. Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. Sadness and joy, anger and love, can co-exist and are all part of the collection of emotions children experience. When you help your child understand his feelings, he is better equipped to manage them effectively.

One major obstacle in doing this which I see quite often in my work with parents is that they are operating under the assumption that having a happy child means he needs to be happy all the time. (Something I still have to keep reminding myself despite the fact that my children are in their twenties!) Muscling through difficult experiences, mastering struggles, and coping with sadness and grief builds strength and resilience, and is ultimately what brings children a sense of contentedness and well-being.

What can parents do?

  • Starting in the earliest months, tune in to babies’ cues—their sounds, facial expressions and gestures—and respond sensitively, which lets babies know their feelings are recognized and important. This might mean stopping a tickling game with a four-month-old when she arches her back and looks away, signaling she needs a break. Or taking a nine-month-old to the window to wave good-bye to Mom when he is sad to see her leave for work.
  • Label and help toddlers cope with feelings. Emotions like anger, sadness, frustration and disappointment can be overwhelming for young children. Naming these feelings is the first step in helping children learn to identify them and communicates to children that these feelings are normal. This might mean acknowledging an 18-month-old’s anger at having to leave the playground, validating a two-year-old’s frustration at his block tower repeatedly falling or empathizing with a three-year-old’s sadness that his grandparents are leaving after a long visit.
  • Don’t fear the feelings. Feelings are not the problem. It’s what we do—or don’t do—with them that can be problematic. Listen openly and calmly when your child shares difficult feelings. When you ask about and acknowledge feelings, you are sending the important message that feelings are valued and important. Recognizing and naming feelings is the first step toward learning to manage them in healthy, acceptable ways over time.
  • Avoid minimizing or talking children out of their feelings. This is a natural reaction—we just want to make the bad feelings go away. “Don’t be sad. You’ll see Joey another day.” But feelings don’t go away; they need to be expressed one way or another. Acknowledging a child’s strong feelings opens the door to helping her learn how to cope with them. “You are sad Joey has to leave. You love playing with him.  Let’s go to the window to wave goodbye and make a plan to see him again soon.” When feelings are minimized or ignored, they often get expressed through aggressive words and actions, or by turning them inward, which can ultimately make children anxious or depressed.
  • Teach tools for coping. If your 18-month-old is angry that playtime is over, guide her to stamp her feet as hard as she can or to draw how angry she is with a red crayon. Help a two-year-old who is frustrated at not being able to get the ball into the basket brainstorm other ways to solve the problem. Take a three-year-old who is fearful about starting a new school to visit his classroom beforehand to meet the teachers and play on the playground so that the unfamiliar can become familiar.

Our children’s emotional reactions trigger our own emotional reactions, which can lead to a knee-jerk need to rescue or “fix” whatever is causing our child distress. But it’s important that we manage our own feelings and avoid this temptation, as it creates a missed opportunity to help children learn strong coping skills. Instead, see these experiences as teachable moments to help your child learn to name and manage the emotions—positive and negative—that add depth and color to our lives.  Show your child that a full, rich life means experiencing both the ups and the downs. Feelings are not “good” or “bad”—they just are. You are your child’s guide in sharing the joys and coping with the challenges. And it starts on day one.

About Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C

Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE (ZTT) for over 18 years, overseeing the development of all parenting content, print and digital. Recently she has taken on the position of Senior Parenting Advisor to focus on expanding the organization’s reach directly to parents.

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  • Erica S

    Thank you for this great advice. I would like to add one more suggestion:

    Read stories to your child. There are books for every age level that have strong emotional content, in which the characters have feelings (whether named or illustrated) that can prompt a discussion. That gives parents an opportunity to give the feeling a name, to talk about parallels in the child’s own life (if they exist), and to talk about how to express and to respond to those feelings.

    It seems like a great way to prepare a young person for strong emotions and situations they haven’t yet experienced (grief for example) as well as giving them a different perspective on what they have already experienced (could also be grief).

  • Alex

    I would also like to add, Don’t act like a jerk or selfish person with you significant other. Be a human and show the little ones a correct response. Your relationships with others dictates the child’s first reaction.

  • Michelle Culver

    How would you help a 15 month old that hits when he is frustrated. He hits objects and us. We don’t hit and he started doing this at an early age. We take his hand and say “not nice”. He hits daily.

    • Laura Bozzo Sakevich

      What worked for me is ask him to show you how nice he can be with his hands instead, then give positive reinforcement for doing that. So instead of “don’t do x” ask him to do what you want him to do. If he’s mad and needs and outlet, give him a designated place to get it out of his system… Not a time out place but a safe place to act out/express frustration/calm down/stomp feet etc. I had the same problem you do with my son when he was that age. I hit this advice from a parenting coach and I think it worked well.

    • Kerry Dee

      Hi Michelle. We had a huge problem with this. It’s gotten alot better though, at age three. I would highly suggest you check out Aha Parenting (Laura Markham I believe). She has all sorts of great advice. Time really does help. Try the book Hands Are Not For Hitting as well. It will get better!

      • Rum and Revenge

        Aha Parenting is a great resource! Tons of excellent advice, while keeping an eye on the long-term goal – a confident, well adjusted adult. The focus is cooperation vs. consequences, and it works really, really well!

        • Kate Orson

          Hand in Hand parenting is also another good resources, they are quite similar to Laura Markham.

  • Syed Najmul Hassan

    Dear Claire

    My daughter 5 years old is showing a strange behaviour

    I got four kids two daughters and two sons.Recently I changed their school.All are fine and going to school easily
    But my daughter feels danger in going to this new school.He starts weeping even the night before and all the day long she thinks a lot about new school and explicitly says this is a bad school I won’t go.

    Kindly advice me as I don’t want to change school as I recently did so.And you know education is not free in Pakistan.
    Thanks and best regards

    • Alex Waldman

      Have you talked to her about what she doesn’t like about the new school? It seems necessary to understand what your child is thinking, or what’s causing their feelings before knowing what kind of approach is appropriate.

  • Chloe Matamoros

    I’d also like to acknowledge the importance in communicating hesr same messages of acceptance regarding emotions with yourself to yourself as an adult, thus making it instinct to do the same for children. Thank you -what inspiring work.

  • joyce smith

    My 5 year old granddaughter will sometimes burst into tears when it’s time for me to go home when either one of her parents gets home. She does it more if her father gets home from work before her mother does. I try to sooth her, but he gets very angry. She is a daddy’s girl. I see nothing wrong with her reaction, but he doesn’t understand the child’s emotion behind it, and you can’t say anything to him. She has very good verbal skills, but sometimes kids her age can’t explain their feelings. Is my take on this wrong? How can I help her? I do
    talk to her before either parent gets home and sometimes it works (I pick her up from school everyday except Mondays).

  • Sandra Alvarado

    How about then they’re just crying nonstop? I have a 3yo niece living at home and sometime I don’t know how to deal with it. Being an aunt is hard, I can’t imagine being a parent lol

  • Kate Orson

    Wonderful article, thanks, I’m going to share on my facebook page :)