Helping Toddlers Deal with Big Feelings

Helping Toddlers Deal with Big Feelings

Toddlers have lots of big feelings, and they often need help managing those feelings. It can be hard to know just what to do when a 2 year old is in the midst of a meltdown, but when we understand a little bit about toddler emotional development and learn some strategies we can implement, those emotional outbursts become far less daunting. 

In this post, I’ll be sharing some ways I support my 2 year old’s emotional development by addressing the following;

Understanding Toddler Emotional Development from a Neurological Perspective

Modeling Healthy Emotional Regulation Skills as a Parent

Building a Toddler’s Emotional Vocabulary

Teaching Emotional Regulation Skills Through Play
Establishing Reasonable Boundaries 

Understanding Toddler Emotional Development 

Understanding a little bit about my toddler’s brain helps me adjust my expectations in terms of his ability to regulate his emotions. 

The term emotional regulation refers to how we manage our emotions. It is about how we understand them and how we decrease the intensity of them so that they do not overwhelm us. Adults have a greater capacity than toddlers do to exercise emotional regulation skills, because they simply have a more developed brain.  
So when my toddler is screaming in the grocery store, it is not because he is being intentionally naughty. He is kicking and screaming because he is 2, and his brain is still developing. He’s doing the best he can with what he has got. It is easier to stay calm, cool and collected as a parent when I acknowledge this. 

Child Development Clinic explains that the part of the brain that regulates emotions and impulses (the prefrontal cortex) isn’t fully developed in kids and teenagers. In fact, it isn’t fully developed until 25 years old! And Zero to Three explains that this part of the brain is especially underdeveloped under the age of 3. As such, occasional tantrums can be considered a normal part of toddler development.

So we can’t expect a toddler to reliably keep it together when they are struggling with big feelings. And Better Health explains that especially if toddlers are tired, hungry, stressed or otherwise off balance, they have even less ability to manage their feelings and impulses (much like the ‘hangry’ adult). And this is especially when we need to offer our calming support. 

Modeling Emotional Regulation as a Parent

Even though toddler tantrums are to be expected, their frequency and intensity can be lessened. Parenting for Brain explains that one of the most important ways to support toddler emotional development is by modeling healthy emotional regulation practices as parents.

Toddlers are like little sponges and they pick up on an incredible amount of information just by watching us. If we are frequently losing our tempers, yelling or speaking angrily to them or to others, they are learning that this is how to deal with feelings. And they learn that feelings lead to things like screaming, stress and conflict. Feelings become scary and out of control.

In the above example, a child might then end up learning that suppressing feelings is the only safe way to manage emotions. Or alternatively, they may think that feelings are so powerful that there is nothing they can do to keep their feelings from exploding. 

We can also look at our own behavior and how it impacts our toddlers from a physiological perspective. Parenting for Brain brings up an excellent point about what happens when our nervous systems are overstimulated. If we start yelling when a child expresses a big feeling, we may unintentionally activate or elevate that child’s “flight or fight” response in their nervous system.

Psychology Tools explains that this flight or fight response is when our bodies activate a stress response in order to respond to a perceived threat. The body prepares to protect itself by either fighting (eg a kicking and screaming toddler) or taking flight (running away or avoidance). So a big feeling in combination with a yelling parent could turn a regular tantrum into a full on meltdown. This is why maintaining a calm presence is so important.

child and parent screaming out of frustration

It is HARD being a parent though, and sometime patience is worn thin. I have lost my patience more than once with my toddler and have had to step away into another room and just let out a scream. So I talk about modeling emotional regulation with this in mind. Just as our toddlers are doing the best they can, we are doing the best we can as parents.

In instances that I am struggling to find my own calm and patience with my toddler, I am working on a few things. The first is simply acknowledging and naming what I am feeling. Usually it’s frustration or irritation. Then I take a couple of deep breaths (or many deep breaths) to slow things down. I remind myself that I am dealing with a 2 year old with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. I remind myself what a bundle of love and joy he is most of the time. Then I get back to business.

I also try to identify any underlying issues that triggered my frustration and impatience in the first place. In my case, I have noticed that the days I feel most impatient and flustered are the ones after I have had a poor night’s sleep. So I know that sleep is an area of self care I really have to focus on. Sometimes lost sleep is just an inevitable part of being a parent and night time kids wake ups, but if you are struggling with sleep even if your child is sleeping through the night, you can check out my post on Postpartum Insomnia and Strategies for a Better Night’s Sleep.

Practicing these emotional regulation strategies does not completely take away all my feelings of frustration and exasperation, but it helps. It makes it so I can tend to my toddler’s emotional outbursts in a calm, rational and productive way.

Identifying and Naming Big Feelings to Support Toddler Emotional Development

In addition to being role models for our children, we can help our toddlers learn about emotional regulation by helping them identify their feelings. We start doing this by putting words to their feelings.

Very Well Family describes this as helping our kids build an emotional vocabulary. When a feeling has a name, it becomes more easily understood. And when a feeling is something we can understand, we gain some control over it and ability to regulate it. 

So when my toddler is expressing a feeling, I find a word to match it. Here are some ideas of feeling words to use; angry, sad, frustrated, anxious, happy, afraid, brave, calm, hurt, panicked, relaxed, surprised, uneasy, uncomfortable, displeased, worried, excited, exhausted, funny, irritated, happy, hyperactive, joyful, and nervous.

list of feeling words for toddlers

I say something like, “Oh, you are feeling angry right now because you fell.” I often catch myself wanting to say “It’s okay” when trying to calm and comfort my toddler, but I am learning to resist that urge. 

Rather than acknowledging the very real feeling my toddler is having, “It’s okay” can be dismissive and a missed learning opportunity. It seems counterintuitive, but saying “it’s okay” is usually not as comforting as acknowledging the feeling. 

As we continue to identify feelings, my toddler is learning to trust that I am okay with him having all his feelings. Whether those feelings are happy, sad, angry, anxious or excited, they are all acceptable. And he doesn’t have to deal with them alone. Because especially at 2 years old, they really need our help and support managing their feelings.

Teaching Impulse Control and Emotional Regulation Through Play

In addition to building kids’ emotional vocabulary, we can help them practice emotional regulation skills and learn about emotions through play. Zero to Three shares some fun ideas of games that help kids develop impulse control 

The first game Zero to Three shares is a stop and go game like red light, green light. They suggest drawing one side of a piece of paper red and the other green. Your child runs to you when you say “green light”, and they have to stop when you say “red light”.

Another game they suggest is freeze dance with music. You have them dance to music, and then they have to freeze when you intermittently stop the music. 

Zero to Three also recommends helping kids learn about managing feelings by engaging in pretend play and reading books about emotions. Kids are great at learning about themselves through characters in stories and play.
child reading story about feelings

Establishing Reasonable Boundaries to Support Toddler Emotional Development

A final aspect of helping toddlers learn about emotional regulation is establishing reasonable boundaries. Boundaries allow us to feel our feelings, but not let them get out of control. And they allow us to do what we want to do, but within reasonable limitations. They help support the development of self-control.

For example, my toddler loves throwing things. Both when he is upset and when he is excited. Throwing things is one of the ways he knows how to express himself emotionally. While I want him to express his feelings, he also needs to know that there are certain ways that are and are not acceptable. 

For example, throwing his wooden cars across the room is not an appropriate way for him to express his frustration. So we have to remind him that if he throws his cars, we are going to take them away. We tell him this calmly and matter of factly. Even if he keeps throwing them (because of a lack of impulse control), he knows that we have made that boundary and there will be a practical consequence for crossing it. 

And when he is not in a state of frustration and we are playing with balls or cars, we talk about the difference between hard and soft things. We explain that we don’t throw hard things. That way, when we ask him to stop throwing his cars in a moment of frustration, he better understands this boundary.

mother comforting child

And while toddlers may initially protest, appropriate boundaries ultimately help toddlers feel safe. They help them regain a sense of control when things are getting out of control. They help them know what to expect and they help manage those big feelings. 

Human emotion is one of the most beautiful things about being alive but also one of the most challenging. So my hope is that I can help my toddler both embrace and regulate his emotions as he continues to grow up. 

Please share any comments or experiences with managing big feelings below, thank you!

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