How to Make Your Toddler Understand Emotions

Toddlers are a bundle of emotions. However, for your toddler to connect with her emotions and verbalise them, she needs to understand them. But, how can you help your toddler understand emotions?

By Mina Dilip

How to Make Your Toddler Understand Emotions

Many parents approach me with their child’s behaviour problems. And, when I tell them that inappropriate behaviour is a child’s way of communicating difficult emotions, they are often flummoxed. This article attempts to explore simple ways of making toddlers understand emotions and express them in an appropriate manner. Integrating these simple exercises or activities into your daily routine can help you raise a child who has a deeper understanding of her own emotions as well as those of others. The first letter of each tip, when put together, make up the acronym ‘EMOTIONS’.

How to develop your young child’s emotional quotient

1. Examine your own feelings and behaviour: As parents, we need to be self-aware. For, only then can we understand our feelings and express them through our behaviour. To do this, I have come up with the ‘BLUE’ method of emotional regulation, which is briefly explained below:

  • Become aware of your feelings by focussing on your breath. This is akin to mindful meditation, where you use your breath to tune into your body and mind.
  • Label your feelings by giving them names. This is a critical aspect of emotional intelligence. For, to help your child develop an emotional vocabulary, you must expand yours first.
  • Understand the feeling–body connection. Every emotion acts like a stimulus and produces sensations in a specific part of the body. When you know which part of your body is affected by a particular emotion, you can establish a feeling–body connection.
  • Express! Having a high emotional quotient is all about verbalising, or expressing feelings through words. However, before teaching your children how to express their feelings, you need to master your own.

2. Model appropriate emotional regulation: Toddlers learn by observing those around them. For example, if there is someone around, usually a significant adult, with a habit of slamming doors when they are angry, it is highly likely that your toddler would do the same. And, if he ever does that and you scold him, ask yourself, “Whom is he learning this from?” Parents, including adults in the family, need to begin modelling appropriate emotion regulation skills if we want to teach the same to our children as well. So, the next time you get angry, try using words to express your anger.

3. Observe your child: Just before a full-blown meltdown, which is usually triggered by the inability to express an emotion, there are tell-tale signs of an imminent outburst. By reflecting on the outpouring, you can understand the emotion, as well as its origin. This can be tremendously helpful in defusing the situation, as well as in teaching your little one how to express the emotion appropriately. For example, when your toddler wants a treat and you know that saying ‘No’ would definitely cause a hullaballoo, try a different approach. Take time to talk your child through her feelings. Say something like this, which might help: “I can see that you really want that candy, but you know that it can make you sick. How about going for a healthy treat instead?”

4. Teach your child names of feelings: If you have worked on building your own feelings vocabulary, it would be fairly easy to start teaching your child to name his feelings. The best way to do this would be to recognise his feeling, validate it and encourage him to verbalise it himself. For example, you notice another child taking away your toddler’s toy, and he is about to hit the other child. You might say something like, “He took your toy and that makes you angry. It’s okay to be angry, but it is not okay to hurt someone. You can tell him you are angry because he took your toy.”

By helping your child recognise feelings, validating them and teaching an alternative way of responding to situations, you would not only be developing his emotional quotient, but also teaching him conflict-resolution and communication skills.

5. Invite your child to play feeling-based games: One of the most effective ways of helping your toddler develop her emotional quotient is to play feeling-based games. My favourite game is ‘Guess the feeling’. How to play: Make a facial expression representing a particular feeling and challenge your child to guess the feeling behind the expression. You can take turns to play this game, which can benefit your child in multiple ways. First, it would help her learn to observe and connect others’ expressions to their feelings, thereby building her empathy. Second, it would help her understand her own feelings and their connection to her facial expression and body language, thereby creating mind–body awareness. Third, she would learn to associate her feelings with words, which would make it easier for her to verbalise her feelings.

6. Offer support and be patient: Handling emotions is not easy. If you are learning this skill as an adult, you would know how hard it is. For your toddler, to explore, express and master his feelings is a humongous feat. And, he is not going to become proficient in doing so overnight. You will still face the occasional tantrum and meltdown. But, be patient and supportive. Assure him that he is not a bad person just because he erred a couple of times and reacted adversely to a difficult feeling. By doing so, you would be extending unconditional positive regard to him, thereby strengthening his self-esteem and resilience.

7. Normalise emotional expression: Sadly, today’s culture encourages the suppression of emotions rather than their expression. I have heard many parents say, “Don’t be sad,” or “Stop whining! Don’t be such a cry-baby!” Have you ever thought about what message this attitude communicates? When we take away a child’s right to express her emotions by commanding her to not be sad or angry, she feels undermined and invalidated. She feels that her emotions don’t count and begins to devalue herself. This adversely impacts her self-worth and causes her to be critical of herself. As parents, we must allow our children to express their emotions freely. We can normalise expression of emotions by being open and honest ourselves. For example, when you are sad, do you cry in front of your child, and admit that ‘mama is feeling sad today’? Or, do you hide your tears and pretend you are just fine?

8. Show children that everyone has feelings: Generalise the concept of emotions. Let your child see that everyone has feelings. A helpful exercise in this context might be observing the body language and expressions of others and playing the ‘Guess Their Feeling’ game. It can be a lot of fun trying to guess what other people might feel, and this would be an extension of the original ‘Guess the feeling’ game in terms of developing your child’s ability to observe others and empathise with them.

These are but a few tips and suggestions to help your child develop a healthy emotional quotient. There are many more games and activities that you can use to build this skill. If you and your child are tech-savvy, you might even want to consider apps and feelings games online. Overall, if you have a combination of offline and online activities, you can be assured of all-around development and high emotional intelligence for everyone in the family.

Mina Dilip, Child Psychologist, Trainee Practitioner in Therapeutic Play Skills (PTUK)

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