Helping Your Toddler Understand Feelings

Help your child understand--and deal with--her changing emotions.

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    Emotional Rollercoaster

    Between 2 and 3 years, your child is making giant leaps in terms of labeling and understanding his feelings, but his ability to manage his ups and downs is shaky at best. Your job during this critical stage of emotional development is to have lots of conversations about feelings: his, yours, and Thomas the Tank Engine's. "Kids whose parents talk to them about emotions have better social skills," says Kristin Lagattuta, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. Once you've opened a dialogue, you can work out ways of anticipating situations that might spark various feelings and come up with acceptable forms of self-expression.

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    She's Happy

    You've Seen It: She does a spontaneous jig when you give her a piece of pie or giggles wildly when her best friend shows up.

    Explain It: "You're happy because you're doing something you love!" This helps your child understand the connection between the joy she's feeling and what's going on in her world. It also teaches her that she has the ability to make herself happy.

    Build On It: At around 2-1/2, kids begin to show signs of empathy. Encourage her budding sensitivity by brainstorming ways to bring happiness to a pal who's blue, says Kristin Lagattuta, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis.

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    He's Sad

    You've Seen It: He can't find his blankie. His lip quivers, his face falls, and tears come streaming down his cheeks. Or, he looks stricken when it's time to say goodbye at the end of a playdate or after you've snapped at him for making a mess.

    Explain It: "We all feel sad sometimes, and that's okay. Let's figure out how to solve this problem." It's important to drive home the idea that everyone gets upset from time to time because life doesn't always unfold the way we want it to, but there are ways to feel better. "It's important to talk to your child about negative emotions so he doesn't think there's anything wrong or scary about these types of feelings," says Kristin Lagattuta, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis.

    Build On It: For this age group, the blues are like a black hole, sucking kids down quickly and completely. "Your job is to lift your child's spirits, plus give him the tools he needs to eventually work his own way out of a funk," says Koraly Perez-Edgar, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia. You might offer some soothing suggestions like, "Would a hug make you feel better?" or "Do you think going to the playground would help?"

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    She's Angry

    You've Seen It: Every time you either refuse a request, say "no," or your toddler is disappointed or frustrated, she turns into a shrieking, flailing, defiant beast.

    Explain It: "You feel angry because you're not getting what you want." Your kid's tantrums probably have the potential to provoke your own meltdowns, but you need to stay calm. And stick to your rules--giving in to your child's demands only teaches her that if she kicks and screams enough, she will get her way. Let her know you understand that she's mad and that you're happy to give her a hug once she's cooled down. "Your toddler depends on you to defuse or redirect her anger," says Koraly Perez-Edgar, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia.

    Build On It: Use this opportunity to guide your red-faced toddler toward self-regulating behaviors so she's eventually able to deal with life's frustrations without going ballistic (be patient, though, as this is a lesson many grown-ups still need to learn). "You might give her an escape valve like an 'angry doll' she can yell at, or an 'angry corner' where she can blow off steam, so she knows what to do when she's losing it," says Dr. Perez-Edgar. Once the tantrum's over, you can talk about better ways to deal with frustration. Tell her, "It makes sense that you were angry your brother wouldn't let you play with his trains, but what could you have done instead of biting?"

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    He's Scared

    You've Seen It: When faced with a new person, place, or activity, your child recoils and becomes apprehensive. Things that never bothered him before-- bedtime, the elevator, the tall slide--suddenly freak him out.

    Explain It: "You're scared because you're worried something bad is going to happen." You want to validate your child's wobbly feelings, but also explain that his fear has less to do with reality than with his being confronted with a new or an unknown situation.

    Build On It: Reassure your child that he's safe by talking to him about your own experiences. For example, you might tell him, "I used to be afraid of monsters too, but I've never, ever seen one. They're only pretend, in books and movies." Above all, teach your child not to dwell on his fear, but rather to seek out things that make him feel brave and confident. "You don't want apprehension to become a personality trait that overly inhibits your child," says Heather Henderson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. "When he feels shaky, encourage him to pick up a favorite toy, sit next to a friend, or remember a fun time. And remind him of past situations he handled despite his initial nervousness." With your guidance, your toddler will learn to better manage his outsized emotions and get on with the rewarding work of exploring his world.

    Originally published in the November 2009 issue of Parents magazine.