Toddlers often have really big emotions. Often their reaction to a situation seems exaggerated. They may laugh hysterically when seeing and popping bubbles. They may scream and cry when dropping a toy or cup. They may try to hit or bite when frustrated. These are age appropriate reactions. Even though they are age appropriate, it doesn’t mean we can’t improve the situation. It’s our job as parents and care givers to teach kids how to cope with their emotions.
To teach children to cope with their emotions it is very important to let them have and experience their feelings. So often I fear parents telling their children “Nothing happened”, or “Don’t cry” or “You’re okay”. These phrases are not accurate and discredit the child’t feelings. If your child is crying, SOMETHING happened. It might not seem like a big issue to you, but it’s big enough to bring your child to tears. It’s very important to acknowledge that!
When you tell your crying child that nothing happened, it’s like you are telling them that their feelings are wrong. It’s very confusing to a child that is trying to figure out emotions. Think of it this way, let’s say you are breast feeding/pumping mom, you just pumped several ounces into the bottle and then you knock it over. Your husband walks in just as this happened and sees you crying, or maybe you even scream. What if he said, “Nothing happened, stop crying.” What would you do? How would you feel? Probably not good, he might not make it out of the room alive! (Just kidding!!) But you would feel so frustrated that he didn’t understand how devastated you feel. BUT if he empathized with you, offered to help clean it up, give a message (that is really just a massage), get you a drink, etc, you would’t be upset with him.
If you can’t relate to that, let try this example…You go to the store and buy an item that you’ve been saving up for, you get home, open it and realize that it’s damaged. You are frustrated and annoyed, you call the store and no more are in stock. You tell your partner and he/she says, “so what, no big deal”. You would feel frustrated and annoyed that they didn’t care about your feelings. If they said something like “Wow, that’s really frustrating, did they say when they would be back in stock?” You would feel heard and validated, no bad feelings towards your partner.
When something happens and your child begins to cry, say something that lets the child know that you understand they are upset, “oh, you are so sad, can I give you a hug?” Even if you don’t think your child should be crying over the situation, you will help them learn to regulate their emotions so much faster if you empathize and comfort them. This will not make them more likely to cry again the next time it happens. In fact, it has the opposite effect. When your child knows that you will be there to comfort them, they often cry less because they feel comfortable and they know they can rely on you to help them. This often takes time to develop and can take more time if they child has had adverse childhood experiences or has developmental delays. Please remember, you cannot spoil a child by giving them what they need. You cannot give too many hugs, too much comfort, etc. We learn to deal with “the real world” when we have a strong foundation of love and security.
When your child is experiencing different emotions name the emotion for them. “You are mad” and then you can describe what they are doing. “You are mad. You are so mad you want to hit me. No hitting mommy. You can hit the floor/couch/pillow.” Do the same for happy. “You are happy! You are so happy that you are jumping up and down!”
Practice making faces for different emotions. For example say “show me a happy face” and then demonstrate a happy face. Do the same for sad, mad, and frustrated. You can also do excited, worried, and scared. Start off with just 3 or 4. You can practice them in a mirror or with the camera app on your phone or tablet. You can take pictures of your family members making various expressions and save them to an album on your phone. You can go through with your child and label the emotions.
Sometimes helping children learn to recognize and label their emotions helps them have less tantrums and less aggression. They feel that you understand them. If you child will allow it offer a hug when they are feeling angry and aggressive, sometime they will stop being aggressive to get a hug. This is a very helpful technique but it can take some time to see the benefits. Don’t give up, just keep labeling and try to help them become calm again.
I really like the resources available from Conscious Discipline, you can find the information here. There are many free resources, they are available in English and Spanish.