Understanding Your 2-Year-Old's Mood Swings

Your child has a full range of emotions at his disposal by age 2. And sometimes it seems he can run through them all in the space of a minute.

Anatomy of a Meltdown

By the time a child is 2, she is capable of experiencing a full range of emotions, says Robert Marvin, Ph.D., a professor of child psychiatry at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. But unlike an older child, a 2-year-old has only just begun to develop cognitive skills to make sense of those feelings -- and to control them. That fact, coupled with a toddler's limited attention span, results in what seems like a wildly fluctuating emotional seesaw.

At this age, a child is taking her first steps toward independence, and her own accomplishments can be a source of great joy. When she completes a new task, such as drawing with crayons or piecing together a puzzle, she will burst with pride. But when the puzzle pieces don't fit or when she's stopped from coloring on the wallpaper, she'll display her dissatisfaction -- in no uncertain terms.

Emotional Education

The challenge for parents is to help a child achieve that independence while also helping him manage his emotions -- particularly the negative ones. Because a 2-year-old's feelings come and go so quickly, parents sometimes underestimate their power, says Susanne Denham, Ph.D., a psychologist at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia, and author of Emotional Development in Young Children (Guilford Publications, 1998). But Dr. Denham's research has found that the children of parents who talk with them about feelings learn how to control their emotions more readily. "Instead of hauling off and hitting or biting someone, they'll be more apt to say, 'I'm mad at you,' " she says. "When we talk about feelings, even with toddlers, we're giving our children a set of important tools they'll use for the rest of their lives."

The Frustration Factor

What makes a toddler's perfectly cheerful disposition so easily give way to fits of fury or outbursts of anger? In a word, frustration. Although a 2-year-old is beginning to develop language skills, her ability to communicate is still limited, and often, she can't make her wishes known clearly. Carol Webster, of Charlottesville, Virginia, recalls a huge tantrum that her daughter, Samantha, threw at age 2. Samantha had been playing dress-up at pre-school, and when her mother tried to get her ready to go home, the child had a major meltdown.

"At first, I assumed it was because she didn't want to stop playing with the clothes," Webster says. "Finally, it dawned on me: Samantha had wanted to put her jacket back on by herself and was furious because I simply hadn't understood that fact."

What's more, 2-year-olds have a limited capacity for delayed gratification. "When a toddler can't have what she wants the moment she wants it, she feels as if the world were coming to an end," says Dr. Marvin. If I tell Beatrice, for example, that she can't have the knife that I'm using to cut vegetables, she's crushed because she simply can't imagine there's something else that could be just as interesting to play with.

"A 2-year-old doesn't yet think in complex 'if . . . then' terms, such as 'If I can't play with the knife, then maybe I could play with the eggbeater,' " Dr. Marvin says. "At the moment Mom says no to what she wants, it feels as if there were no alternative."

Fortunately for parents, a 2-year-old's despair is generally short-lived. Toddlers can easily home in on a goal, and most can just as easily be distracted by something novel. "Kids this age are curious about so many things that they're often going in several directions at once," says James Windell, author of Children Who Say No When You Want Them to Say Yes (Macmillan, 1996) and a psychotherapist in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. "They can't concentrate on any one thing for more than a few minutes."

A clever parent can take advantage of that short attention span and gently steer a child toward another activity if he's unhappy or frustrated with his current pursuit. If, for instance, I had shown Beatrice a sinkful of soap bubbles when she was screaming for my chopping knife, she probably would have settled down. At other times, a quick change of scenery -- for example, quietly moving her out of the kitchen and into her room, where she'll see such diversions as her dinosaurs and board books -- is enough to change her focus.

Talk About Feelings

Although a well-chosen diversion can head off an emotional outburst, it's also important for parents to talk to a toddler about what she's feeling, not simply to push those feelings away. Of course, you can't expect a 2-year-old to tell you that she's angry, lonely, or bored instead of kicking her blocks; she simply doesn't have the impulse control or the vocabulary. But you can label her feelings for her: Saying, "That must have made you mad" or "You look sad right now" can help your child realize that there are words to describe what's going on inside her. Ultimately, this will make her understand that such feelings are perfectly normal. "If every time a toddler throws a puzzle piece in frustration, the parent says, 'Wow, you are really angry,' over time, the child will learn to associate that feeling with a word," says Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W., a development specialist at Zero To Three: The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Parents, in Washington, D.C. Then, as the child nears age 3 and begins to understand words like mad and sad, she'll actually be able to talk about how she's feeling.

This doesn't mean, however, that parents should ignore inappropriate behavior. "You can acknowledge your child's feelings and, at the same time, teach him not to act out because of them," says Carolyn Saarni, Ph.D., a professor of counseling at Sonoma State University, in Rohnert Park, California. For example, you can ask your child if he feels sad about his lost blanky or angry at Mommy for talking on the phone. Then you should let him know that hitting or shrieking isn't allowed. Although he won't fully comprehend the message until he's older, this exchange sets the foundation for an important concept: Strong feelings -- even negative ones -- are a normal part of life, but hurtful or destructive behavior isn't acceptable and won't be tolerated.

Remember to label your child's positive feelings as well as her negative ones, adds Dr. Marvin. When your toddler is content or excited, you might say, "I see you're really enjoying that ice-cream cone" or "Playing hide-and-seek with Mommy and Daddy makes you very happy, doesn't it?" "This will help your child learn to distinguish one feeling from another," Dr. Marvin says. "It will teach her that all emotions, good or bad, are a normal and healthy part of life."

The Roots of Empathy

Two-year-olds are, of course, largely self-centered creatures. They can't fully grasp the notion that other people have feelings, too, and that those feelings can be different from their own. But as a child learns to label her own emotions, she'll begin to apply those words to others as well.

"A 2 1/2-year-old who has talked with her mom about anger knows what anger feels like," Dr. Marvin says. "So when Mom says, 'Boy, I'm angry,' the child begins to get a sense that her mother is experiencing the same feeling that she's had. "This is the starting point for empathy, the ability to identify with the feelings of others. That capacity doesn't develop over-night; it's a long and gradual process that continues throughout childhood. "Now that Samantha is 3, she notices more about other people," says Carol Webster. "She will sometimes ask if Mommy is sad or wonder aloud why another child is crying."

The toddler years are the best time to lay the groundwork for your child to understand emotions in himself and in others. "So much of parenting in the early years comes down to talking about feelings," says Windell. When parents teach children why a behavior is right or wrong, they're showing them how other people feel: "We don't hit, because it hurts and makes others feel bad" or "Wouldn't you feel said if this happened to you?"

But these early lessons aren't merely about feelings; they're also about getting along in society. "Managing her own anger, understanding others' feelings, getting along with others -- these skills will have a lot to do with your child's success in the world," Windell says. "Life is a lot more difficult for kids who don't learn these important lessons.

The Emotional Power of Play

But these early lessons aren't merely about feelings; they're also about getting along in society. "Managing her own anger, understanding others' feelings, getting along with others -- these skills will have a lot to do with your child's success in the world," Windell says. "Life is a lot more difficult for kids who don't learn these important lessons.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the March 2000 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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