More Ways to Help Tots Express Emotions
Envy is a natural emotion in toddlers and preschoolers, but don't expect your child to realize that's what he's feeling. He's more likely to say he's "mad" or "frustrated" that his baby brother gets so much attention or that his friend has his own room while he has to share one. While it's obvious to you that he's jealous, making him feel better isn't quite so simple. You can begin by acknowledging the way he's feeling ("I know you wish you had your own room like Ben, and that makes you a little jealous of him"). Then offer some suggestions for easing his envy. You might try partitioning your kids' bedroom so that he has a dedicated space or establishing specific times when he gets to use it by himself. If he's jealous of your newborn, explain that infants can't do things for themselves like big boys can. Then set aside a regular window of time to spend alone with him -- and do your best to avoid breaking your date, so he knows he still comes first.
Try This! In a quiet moment, make a list together of all the things he has to be thankful for (friends, a nice house, a family that loves him, food to eat, etc.). Read them back whenever his jealous feelings return. Reinforce the idea by having him box up clothing and toys that he's outgrown and donating them to a local shelter. Explain that some kids don't have games to play with, clothes that fit, or even a place to call home.
Letting Go of Guilt
By age 3 or 4, your child is developing a conscience. Even if no one witnesses her doing something wrong, she'll probably feel bad about it. When Leigh Face, of Hagerstown, Maryland, found a puzzle box stuck to the windowsill, her 4-year-old daughter, Natalie, claimed she didn't know what had happened. But the next day, Natalie suddenly burst into tears. "It turns out she had spilled milk and covered it up with the box," says Face. "She felt awful about it."
In this case, crying over spilled milk was a good thing; it meant that Natalie had developed a sense of right and wrong. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that young kids who felt guilty when they misbehaved were better able to control their conduct as grade-schoolers. "Being remorseful lets a child reflect on the consequences of her action, which makes her less inclined to do it again," says Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., a child psychologist and director of the Healthy Steps program at the Montefiore Medical Center, in Bronx, New York.
You can help your child work through her guilt by defining it ("You feel bad about not telling me what happened"), explaining why it was the wrong thing to do ("You should always tell the truth"), suggesting a better path for the future ("Next time, let me know right away when you spill something so it'll be easier to clean it up"), and making amends ("Now let's work on removing it together").
Try This! Books that have a moral message, such as The Berenstain Bears and the Truth, can start a conversation about honesty and guilt. While you're reading, stop and ask your child questions, such as, "What would you do if you were in Brother and Sister Bear's situation?" or "How do you think they felt when they lied?"
A preschooler's life has its fair share of bummers, such as when her playdate gets canceled or she gets in trouble for talking during circle time. A young child's sorrow often fades quickly, but sometimes it lingers. When 4-year-old Faith Wiggins lost her new ring at preschool, she was heartbroken. "Weeks later, she still tears up about it every now and then," says her mom, Paula, of Greencastle, Indiana.
When your child's feeling blue, don't just try to distract her. Instead, tell her about a time when you felt sad as a child ("I once lost my teddy bear, and I couldn't stop crying"). Hold her hand, give her a hug, and let her know it's okay to be down sometimes. Then come up with ideas for lifting her spirits, such as playing dress-up with some of her other play jewelry.
Try This! At the dinner table, share an event that made you happy and one that made you sad that day. Then ask your child to do the same thing (young kids may need some prompting to recall specific events and express themselves). This will help her learn to identify these emotions and realize that she experiences the same types of feelings that other people do -- which is the first critical step in helping her figure out how to control them.
More Than Moody
It's typical for a young child to have strong feelings. But if she seems down in the dumps most of the time or swings quickly between sadness and elation, she could have a mood disorder. Harold Koplewicz, M.D., a Parents advisor and director of the Child Mind Institute, in New York City, suggests seeing a mental-health specialist if your child displays one or more of these signs on a daily basis for at least two weeks.
- Frequent complaints about vague physical ailments ("Mommy, I have a headache")
- Severe irritability, aggression, or defiance, often accompanied by shouting or temper tantrums
- Intense fear about the future, illness, or death
- A loss of interest in playing with friends and doing fun activities (like going to a birthday party)
- Regression (such as wetting the bed or soiling her underwear long after she's been toilet trained)
- Sudden difficulty falling or staying asleep
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Parents magazine.