Mother and Baby

How to help your toddler manage their emotions

Toddlers: small in size, large in self-expression. If you’ve ever tried to persuade yours into their buggy when they want to walk, you’ll know that when it comes to saying how they feel, toddlers don’t hold back!

‘And these big feelings are totally normal,’ says child psychologist Dr Margot Sunderland. ‘The parts of the brain that helps us to think and understand how we feel aren’t developed in children. So, while we adults can moderate our feelings by thinking them through, your toddler can’t. He just reacts!’

Meltdowns? Normal. Bouncing up and down like a delighted ping-pong ball when he gets a present? Normal. Erupting into a weeping tornado when he can’t have an ice cream? Normal. And while your toddler will eventually learn how to handle all these big feelings, there’s a lot you can do to help him on this journey, and support him to deal with his emotions in a healthy way. ‘We all need emotions,’ says Margot. ‘They’re a vital tool for helping us navigate through life. And right now, when your child is a toddler, is the perfect time to start helping him to understand and accept his feelings.’

Here’s M&B’s no-nonsense guide to managing toddler emotions.

Click on an emotion from the list below to jump to the section you need advice with, plus genius tips on what to try at home! 

1) Anger

Ever had that dilemma where your toddler is busy playing, but it’s time to get him ready for bed? And you take a deep breath as you say the words, ‘You’ve done a great job doing your puzzle, but let’s go and get your jim-jams on now’? You’re thinking, ‘I want to stick to the bedtime routine. The smooth running of our entire life, not to mention my sanity, rests upon him getting enough sleep.’ But your little one thinks, ‘What?!! Can’t you see what I’m doing here?! This is important! Why are you telling me to stop?! And he flings the puzzle across the floor.

Yup, he’s angry. And most of the time, it’s frustration that causes this emotion. ‘Anger occurs when something happens that your toddler doesn’t like – maybe his sibling steals his train – or when he wants to finish a puzzle, but that need is frustrated,’ explains Margot. ‘And when the emotion is intense, it floods your child’s system with stress hormones, making him feel out-of-control, enraged and scared.’ Which, we’re guessing, is a little bit how witnessing his little outburst makes you feel, too.

‘And it can be tempting to try and stop your child feeling angry,’ says Margot. ‘But if you deny an emotion it becomes scarier, because you’re indicating that the emotion is “bad” and shouldn’t be felt. Acknowledge his anger, however, and you teach him to recognise and understand the emotion. So, as he grows up, he’ll be able to recognise why he’s getting angry and find ways to resolve the situations.’

So, the very best thing you can do when your toddler is angry is to simply express why he’s feeling that way. ‘So you might say, “Mummy knows you want to finish your puzzle. You’re cross. You were enjoying doing your puzzle. You wanted to finish it”, suggests Margot.

By putting his feelings into words, you acknowledge his needs and show him that you understand how he feels. ‘And when we feel understood we become calmer,’ says Margot. ‘Naming the feeling also shows him that this is an emotion you know, so he’s not alone in feeling it. And that makes the emotion far less scary.’ It also gives him the words which, one day, he’ll be able to use to express his feelings in a calmer way.

This process soothes your toddler and allows him to engage with, and start to recognise and understand, his feelings. And research shows that helping children put words to feelings at a young age has long-terms gains for their brain development and helps them to manage stress well in later life.

Now, if you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, well, that’s all very well, but it’ll be a bit tricky when I’ve got puzzle pieces being thrown at my head, hold on for a moment. It’s probably not the anger itself that’s the problem here, just the behaviour that follows. ‘And while you shouldn’t stop a feeling, it’s OK to stop a behaviour,’ says Margot. ‘If your youngster is hitting out, or behaving in a way that’s going to hurt himself of someone else, then add that it’s OK for him to feel really angry, but it’s not OK to hit. And once he has the words to express how he feels, the need to express it physically will ease.’

Try this: If your toddler is angry, simply sit down next to him. This closeness can help him to feel less out-of-control, so the situation feels less scary and he’ll find it easier to calm down.

2) Fear

A dog that sniffs his ankles, a balloon popping, a door slamming downstairs… ‘There are all sorts of unexpected events that may scare your toddler,’ says Margot. And that’s because at this age, he’s only just starting to explore the world. He may find anything he can’t control or predict scary, because he hasn’t yet learnt what’s dangerous, and what’s not. Just think about it: if you hadn’t yet learnt that tigers bite and cats don’t, you’d probably be just as scared of a cat as you are of a tiger.

‘How anxious your child gets when something unexpected happens will depend on his personality,’ says Margot. ‘But the best way to calm a frightened toddler is to reassure him by showing him that you think that the situation is okay.’ And it’s key that you don’t tell him not to be scared, but simply tell him that you feel fine about it all, using a soothing tone.

‘Research has shown that when a parent’s voice is gentle and melodic, it triggers the release of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, in your child’s system. Soft, soothing touch, such as a massaging rub of the back, will also reduce his fear,’ adds Margot.

If you can, do whatever you can to help him take control of the situation, too. ‘So if he’s scared of a tiny spider, give it a name,’ suggests Margot, ‘and make up a story about it: “This is Billy. He’s come to visit because he’s lost. He wants to know if he can live here because he loves our snuggly curtains.” You’re giving the spider a personality, which makes him feel friendly, rather than scary.’

Try this: If your youngster has to do something new, like going to the doctor for the first time, he’ll feel less nervous if you talk him through what will happen. ‘Use toys figures to act out what you would do at the doctor’s surgery – going to reception, sitting in the waiting room, talking to the doctor,’ says Margot. ‘When you help your toddler understand a situation in advance, it helps him to feel more in control, and that will reduce any anxiety he might feel.’

3) Happiness

Now that you’ve decided to help your toddler with these big emotions, don’t forget to connect with the fun ones, too! ‘Happiness is often there in the simplest moments of you and your toddler being together,’ says Margot. ‘Just enjoy whatever you’re doing, whether that’s colouring together or walking along, hand-in-hand, swinging your arms and singing.’ Easy, right? Well, truth be told, these relaxed moments when your youngster is calm and content can seem like the perfect time to put a wash on or check your phone. ‘Forget the housework!’ says Margot. ‘It’s as important to be with your child in joy as it is to be with him when he’s expressing other emotions. Because, when you are, you teach him that it’s great to feel happy!’

Want to create a moment of happiness to enjoy together right now? Sit opposite your toddler and mirror his movements exactly. Give yourself a tail by tucking a sock into the back of your jeans and get your toddler to chase you and try to pull it off. Get your toddler to stand on your feet as you hold his hands and walk around. Grab the bubble mixture and challenge your toddler to pop them with different parts of his body – first hands, then feet, elbows and bottom! And enjoy being happy together!

Buy this: Build your youngster’s emotional intelligence by playing imaginative games that involve feelings. Feely Face Bears Mask Set, suitable from three years, £15.99, learningspaceuk.co.uk

4) Excitement


"While happiness offers a lovely sense of well-being, excitement is a trickier feeling for youngsters to handle,’ says Margot. ‘When toddlers are excited, they feel a little out-of-control, and a bit vulnerable. It’s a feeling that can tip over into being jittery and insecure – just how you might feel when you’re waiting to hear if you’ve got a job you really want.’ That nervous tension might bubble up when your youngster has an invitation to a party or if Nana’s coming over for tea.

To help, join him in his excitement: ‘If your toddler can share his excitement with you, then it keeps this emotion feeling pleasurable, rather than tense,’ says Margot. ‘If you’re excited too, he knows it’s safe to be excited. So tell him that you’re looking forward to the exciting event, too. Say, explicitly, and make sure your tone of voice matches the words, “I’m really excited about the party!”’

It also helps if you can find ways to link his excitement to the activities that your toddler is doing in the present moment. ‘By channelling his excitement into activities, perhaps that the two of you can do together, your toddler can enjoy the sense of anticipation, without becoming overwhelmed,’ says Margot. If he can’t wait for the party, blow up a balloon ready to take with him. If Nana and Grandad are visiting, suggest he draws them an amazing picture.

Try this: If he’s getting over-excited, sensory play will calm him. Try floating a boat in a tub of warm water. He’ll find the physical sensations of the warmth of the water, the feel of the liquid, and pushing the wooden boat, soothing.

 

5) Sadness

It’s hard for us mums to think of our little ones feeling sad, but it’s a fact that sometimes they do.

‘The most common cause of sadness in toddlers is separation anxiety,’ says Margot. ‘This is a very real and painful emotion for children, because it’s a genuine feeling of loss. And if your youngster is starting a new routine that means being away from you, maybe at nursery or with a childminder, the one thing that you can do to make it easier is to make time for him as he settles in.’ He’ll want to spend more time with you while he works through these emotions, so keep your diary as clear as possible for a few days. ‘Research shows that the settling-in process takes around three days,’ says Margot. Have a stash of storybooks ready for some sofa-time. And make sure one raises the emotions that your toddler might be feeling, such as Owl Babies (£3.99, Amazon), which tells the story of three little owls whose mummy leaves but always returns.

Buy this: He can choose which expression to give the characters, giving you the opportunity to ask him why Baby Bear is looking so sad, as you play together. Wooden Bear Family Dress-Up Puzzle, £12.99, Amazon. 

6) Jealousy

Toddlers can experience high-level, gnawing pangs of jealousy, and it’s usually in connection with one thing: you. ‘If a toddler feels that he’s missing out on time with his parents, or his sibling is getting more of that time, he can become jealous,’ says Margot. ‘And that leaves a feeling of emptiness.’ So, while it’s not easy for you to see your toddler acting out this emotion, remember that this behaviour is prompted by a feeling of emptiness. And the best way to help your little one is to fill that hole. ‘Create special, ring-fenced time with him every day,’ says Margot, ‘when you are fully focused on him. Talk, play games, hug and let him take the lead.’

Some youngsters will withdraw when they feel jealous. ‘Don’t dismiss this as your child sulking,’ says Margot. ‘Find a way to let him lead your interaction. If he’s under the table, put a cuddly toy near him and say, “Will you let me know if you are OK under the table or if you want a hug? I’ll come back in a minute. If you put the cuddly bear on the chair, I’ll know you want a hug.”’

When a toddler feels jealous, he’s doubting himself. To boost his self-esteem, tell him why you noticed when he did something that you think is great. Describe it in detail: ‘I saw how kind you were to your friend. She fell over and was upset and you went straight over to look after her. I know you were enjoying playing with the sand, but you stopped to be kind to your friend. That was a really lovely thing to do.’

Buy this: Reassure your toddler that, whatever he feels and does, you’ll love him regardless, with No Matter What (Amazon) a tale of grumpy Small, who thinks no one will love him at all. 

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