A Step by Step Guide to Help Toddlers Express Their Feelings
When toddlers have a hard time expressing their feelings they are more likely to get frustrated and aggressive and can lash out at those around them.
How many of us have observed our little angels turn into piranhas and leave their mark “literally” on their playmates or caregivers.
My child therapy practice is flooded with children in daycare and pre-school who are on the verge of getting “kicked out” because they keep biting their peers.
Some parents are shocked and mortified by their children’s behavior and treat it like a discipline issue. There are parents who will put hot sauce in their children’s mouth or even bite their children back!
In reality their children’s behavior is just a desperate effort to communicate their needs or feelings to others.
I am not saying the behavior should not be consequenced, but then teach your children the skills to express their feeling so they don’t wind up in the same situation again and again!
Toddlers usually move out of this behavior as they get older and acquire the emotional vocabulary to make their feelings heard by those around them, but why wait?
Toddlers have the capability and the capacity to learn how to express their feelings – they just need to be coached in the right direction.
I have worked with many young children and some older children who had an extremely limited emotional vocabulary. I have worked with children who could not identify their feelings outside of happy, sad or mad. Many children I have worked with – even older children – didn’t know what the meaning of “worried” meant. Children would often mislabel their feelings as “sad” when they really meant “scared.”
When children don’t have the ability to accurately describe how they are feeling, we as parents will have a much harder time knowing how to help them. So let’s roll up our sleeves and teach our toddlers how to express their feelings!
Model feeling words for your children.
All too often, we as parents don’t express our feelings in the best way. Our children are constantly watching us, copying us, looking to us in order to gauge how they should act and what they should say.
So when we curse – our little kids think that this is how they are meant to express their feelings. When our children get mad they will repeat our words – as colorful as they may be – but then they get in trouble and are told, “Don’t say that!” Well, that’s confusing!?
Toddlers are just learning how to navigate through their world and half the time they are feeling pretty lost. We as parents can make it easier or more complicated for them.
When you are upset, try and use good feeling words. I know we are all human and this may be impossible all the time, but it is good to be at least cognizant of the vocabulary you choose to use around your toddler.
Try using expressive words that help define the exact emotion you are having at the time. Use a large vocabulary of emotional words such as worried, frustrated, annoyed and upset. You can say things like, “I am so frustrated right now! I keep trying to fix this toy, but it is not working!” or “I am worried. Everyone is getting sick and I am worried we are all going to get sick too!”
Toddlers will learn to use emotional words accurately and in the right context if they hear it being used around them. Until children go to school – we are creating their vocabulary.
Label your children’s feelings for them.
Often younger toddlers have a limited vocabulary and when they are upset their vocabulary becomes even more limited. Toddlers will revert to grunting, growling, shouting, crying and pouting when they are upset. Most of the time parents know why their child is upset.
Help your children put words to their feelings. If your children are upset because they can’t have a cookie and they are pouting, you can say something like, “You are mad. You are mad because you want a cookie and I won’t let you.”
As simplistic as this sounds, you are actively teaching your children how to link their feelings to words. As your children hear you use more feeling words, they will start to correct you if you are not accurately labeling their feelings. They might say, “I am not sad! I am mad!! I wanted that toy and she just took it away.”
When your children start to do this – you will know they are starting to develop their emotional intelligence.
You can also prompt your children to look in the mirror while you say, “Look at your face. It is all red and scrunched up. You look very angry right now.” This will give them a visual image of their mood and an emotional word that matches their feelings.
Point out other people and label their feelings.
Observation is a wonderful way to learn. When you see someone showing a strong emotion, label the feeling for your toddler. You can say, “You see that little girl. She is crying. She must be sad. I wonder why she is sad.”
Labeling other people’s feelings not only increases your children’s emotional vocabulary, it can also improve their empathy towards others. Your children will be able to read social situations more accurately because of their ability to read other’s emotions.
Have a feelings check-in at dinner.
It is a nice family tradition to check-in with everyone at dinner. Some families will have everyone at the dinner table tell a “high and a low” for their day.
For younger children you can adapt this tradition and have everyone say something that made them happy and mad that day. You can alternate what feelings you use each day, keeping a happy feeling (happy, excited etc.) and an unpleasant feeling (scared, mad, sad etc.).
For toddlers that are restless and don’t sit for dinner, you can do this check-in at bedtime when you are tucking them in.
Play feeling games.
You can a play a “Guess my Feeling” game with your toddler. You can both take turns making facial expressions and you each have to guess what feeling is being shown.
This helps on two levels. One, it helps your children match up your facial expressions to your various emotions. Two, it helps them match up their own facial expressions to an emotion as well. Play the game near a mirror, where your children can visually see their various expressions.
If your child is technologically savvy, they can play apps specifically designed to help toddlers learn and express emotions. If you type in “feelings” when searching for games, you will be presented with a long menu of toddler and pre-school games based on feelings – many of them are free.
Watch shows and read books that focus on feelings.
Children learn through many different modalities. There are many great children’s shows that address feelings in every episode. One of my favorite shows for this is Ni Hao Kai-Lan, a Nick Jr. show whose premise is to teach about the Chinese culture, but also does a wonderful job at labeling feelings and teaching children emotional problem-solving. Another favorite of mine is the PBS show Daniel the Tiger, which covers some wonderful topics around feelings and problem-solving.
Books are also a wonderful resource to help teach your children about feelings in a more natural, informal way. There are a slew of great books for toddlers and preschoolers based on feelings. Amazon is an easy way to search for a long list of feelings books for toddlers. Here are just a few:
Teaching your toddler how to express their emotions will take time and patience. The most effective way to teach toddlers how to express their feelings will be in the natural setting of your day-to-day activities.
Learn to incorporate feeling words into your vocabulary. Frequently label your child’s feelings. Read books about feelings. Watch shows about emotions. Before you know it, your children will have developed skills to effectively express how they feel!
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