How to Help Kids Deal with Their Emotions


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Denis Horan

As your baby reaches her first birthday, she'll feel excited about new adventures -- walking up and down stairs or riding the slide at the park -- but will also be apprehensive about doing it all by herself. On the one hand, she doesn't want any help, but she melts down easily when things don't go her way. Frustration is not a new emotion for a toddler, but there's an added layer to the babyhood version. An 18-month-old, told it's time to leave the playground, isn't just mad because she's not getting what she wants. She's also mad because she understands that Mom could give in but is choosing not to, which enrages her even more. Not surprisingly, this lack of emotional control, which increases between ages 2 and 3, is really a cry for help. Your child simply doesn't know how to handle the intensity of her emotions.

Consider what happens when you slam your finger in a drawer. Pain, anger, and maybe even fear will flood your brain. But you quickly sort through these emotions: your finger hurts, but you know the pain will subside, so there's no need to panic; you shake off your anger; you rule out fear because you can identify the severity (not very high) of the injury.

Toddlers, however, don't yet have this power to rationalize. They don't know which emotions to ignore and which ones are justified. This is why when a child falls, her first reaction is often to turn and look at Mom's face. Do you look afraid? Sad? Angry? This emotional referencing helps your child learn the appropriate responses to difficult situations. "Kids need to know, 'I am feeling something but I am going to be okay,'" Van Bortel says.

Toddlers are also becoming more self-aware. "Put an 18-month-old in front of a mirror with a little rouge on his nose, and he recognizes himself and will try to remove the rouge. Before 18 months, they don't," says Matt Hertenstein, a psychologist and lead researcher at the Infant Discovery and Emotion Lab at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana. Burgeoning self-consciousness brings with it several new emotions, such as embarrassment. When your potty-training 2-year-old has an accident at daycare and is laughed at, he understands that others are making fun of him. But this new emotional understanding also has a positive side: Your toddler now can experience the pride that comes from a job well done. Praise him for a colorful picture he drew or a tower he carefully built, and he'll smile brightly and puff up his chest.

But just because your child is experiencing these new feelings doesn't mean he can name them. At age 3, a child still describes his emotions in three basic ways: happy, mad, or sad. Ask a beaming child how he feels about his painting, Van Bortel says, and he'll likely have a one-word answer: "Good." When a parent says, "You must feel very proud!" you are then helping him develop the words necessary to articulate all the different kinds of "good" emotions he feels.

Improving verbal ability also results in another skill: negotiation. A 3-year-old, knowing that Mom and Dad are going out to dinner, might try to talk his parents into staying home. Though he may not be conscious of his reasoning, he knows one thing: I am going to feel upset when Mommy and Daddy go out. This is because a child of that age now has a new capacity: "He can anticipate the emotions he will have in a certain situation because his ability to remember has developed," says Julie Braungart-Rieker, PhD, who researches infant emotional development at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. As your child ages, and you go from kissing boo-boos to helping heal broken hearts, his problems will become more complex. But one thing will remain the same. What he wants to hear more than anything is, "Everything is going to be okay."

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