My Toddler Said They Don't Love Me—How Can I Respond In A Way That Still Validates Complicated Emotions?

Toddlers may be full of nonsense, but they need us to transform this nonsense into growth. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says that no matter what they say to us when emotions take charge of their brains, showing them empathy and understanding builds emotional coping for the future, as well as their own sense of self-worth.

An illustration of a mom and her toddler talking.
Photo: Parents.

Bitter Boundaries

My toddler got upset with me and yelled "I don't love you." I was going the route of "that makes me sad because I love spending time with you, I enjoy our fun, and I really love you," but then I started thinking about longer term. I don't want my children to feel like they have to hide their feelings so that other people aren't sad—especially when it comes to dating. I don't want them to be taught that they should not want to hurt someone's feelings if they don't recipricate love. How can I respond to this type of remark in a way that sets my toddler up to be empathetic but also to express feelings appropriately?

—Bitter Boundaries

I'm impressed with your thoughtfulness in the trenches of toddler parenting. I often confess how much early childhood mothering fell far from the "precious moments" fantasies of parenthood for me. In fact, my son went through what felt like a forever phase of screaming this same thing at me in times of upset: "Time to put on your shoes, honey!" "I don't love you!"

Now that I am beyond this parenting season, it feels much easier to see all the opportunities to transform toddler nonsense into growth. You're already there! You get the short-term and long-term implications of your responses to your toddler now, so I'm confident the next steps of what to do will easily fall into place.

Consider Theory of Mind

A child developing empathy relies on skills that fall under a concept called "theory of mind," which refers to an ability to understand another person's experience and perspective that is different from one's own. Toddlers are not selfish jerks despite appearances at times; they are designed to be self-centered and truly do not know how to take someone else's perspective. Although toddlers do not yet have the brain development for theory of mind, what others model does help them eventually get there when their brains are ready, typically around age 4 or 5.

In the Meltdown Moment

It can be hard in the heat of the meltdown moment to remember not to take toddlers literally, but their provocative declarations do have a purpose—expressing strong emotion. The basic steps to respond to big words and big feelings include:

  1. Stay calm the best you can. (I know, much easier said than done, so give yourself a gold star each time you succeed!)
  2. Show empathy and perspective-taking by reflecting back their possible emotions for the situation: "You look angry that we have to go home from the park now. Maybe you also feel sad about leaving the slide where you were having so much fun."
  3. Help them put into words what they might actually mean instead of not loving you, without dismissing their experience. So instead of "I know you love me!" you might say: "You said you don't love me. I wonder if that means playing at the park is so fun that it is really hard to leave."

Your use of empathy in these moments accomplishes two critical goals: it helps your children regulate the big emotion during the outburst, and models how to show empathy, which the more they see you do it, they will show at older ages when able. The first step of staying calm can help them work through the big feelings faster; when we become reactive (yelling back), everyone's emotions stay running high and the whole conflict lasts longer. Translating their statement into another way to express the same emotion gives them a template for doing this in the future, even if that future may be at least a few years away.

The Emotions Control Panel

If we had a peek into the brain of an upset toddler, we would see a sky's-worth of lightning rods sparking around their limbic system, which is the emotions control panel of the brain. The challenge is that the other parts of their brains that contain the lightning to avoid a full-fledged storm, are not developed. Since your goal is to help your daughter express emotions appropriately, starting now makes a difference, but you may not see results for a couple years. Even then, the nature of early childhood brain development means in times of heightened emotion, newly mastered skills seem to vanish because they simply take more effort. Hang in there—I promise that each and every time you are able to calmly respond with naming emotions for them, it is sinking into those neurons so that they will eventually do it on their own.

Internal Working Model: Why It Matters

No pressure, but the relationships we build with our children from the beginning form what is referred to in psychology as a person's "internal working model." How parents relate to children in the early years gives them the model for future relationships, which you already see clearly as you worry about how your response to your children's emotions may affect the health of their relationships later. Two key gifts any parent can give their young child:

  • Validate their experience (as bonkers as that experience may be). A child's sense that their parent truly understands them starts young, and powerfully predicts greater well-being later.
  • Show compassion for a child's entire range of emotions, communicating that all feelings are acceptable (even if not all behaviors of course). The more freedom children feel in experiencing and expressing difficult, unpleasant emotions, the better for their overall psychological health.

These two gifts not only contribute to emotional skills and well-being but also build your child's sense of self-worth. This self-worth helps them find healthier relationships in the future, which sounds like your ultimate goal, even in these daily interactions now.

The Bottom Line

In the toddler parenting season, there's no way to make every interaction magical, or even positive. Just as toddlers are constantly learning from us, we are on our own learning curve. I often counsel parents of these young powder kegs that keeping the big picture of their overall growth can help us respond more effectively in the moment, but it doesn't need to be 100 percent of the time. Just as you are accepting your child's emotions to teach them about love and safety in relationships, hopefully you can accept your own learning as part of parenting growth. Your children will surely love you forever and always, no matter what they says in the not-so-precious moments now.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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