- 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.