Can you tame a toddler’s emotions?
Authors: Kayla West (centre director) and Dora Reynolds (senior educator) at Goodstart Redcliffe Ashmole Road
The toddler years are fascinating for parents and early learning educators.
It’s when a child starts to really explore their budding independence, become more mobile and more curious about the world around them.
The toddler years are also a time when their communication skills start to rapidly emerge, and we often delight in the excitement and wonder being expressed to us when we’re engaged with toddlers.
As these moments of exploration and discovery begin to unfold, so too does their growing senses of frustration, anxiety and insecurity…and their ability to express these feelings in no uncertain terms!
Learning about emotions opens a whole new world to toddlers and helps them to build foundational skills, essential not only for school but for adult life as well. It’s why we place so much attention on emotional development in my centre at Redcliffe
, and indeed in all Goodstart centres
But why do toddlers have such big feelings in the first place?
Why do toddlers have such big emotions?
There can be many triggers for a toddler to display their emotions, and most of the time it’s just a normal part of their development.
Here’s the most common reasons for toddler behaviour that we see in our centre:
- They’re hungry or tired – hunger and tiredness can bring out the worst in all of us. Toddlers are no different!
- Their communication skills just aren’t there yet – having a feeling but not being able to communicate it or ask for help is frustrating for toddlers.
- They still haven’t learned to regulate their emotions – emotional regulation takes time to develop and master, and toddlers are still learning to recognise their feelings and the strategies they can use to cope with them.
- Trouble switching from one activity to another – toddlers become very focussed on what they’re doing and interrupting this focus when it’s time to move on can cause an outburst, especially when they view the next task as being less attractive.
Why is it important to teach toddlers about their feelings?
Understanding their emotions helps a toddler to make sense of themselves and the people around them.
Big emotions, whether it’s their own or being displayed by someone else, can very easily be confusing for a toddler. Learning to identify and label their feelings helps them understand what’s going on within and around them, and over time learn what they can do about it.
Understanding emotions also helps toddlers to feel good about themselves, builds their confidence and sense of wellbeing and positions them well for learning. It’s also an important factor in toddlers growing to be inclusive, collaborative children and adults.
When and how do we start teaching toddlers about emotions?
It’s never too early, and in fact we start teaching children about their emotions from our nursery room upwards.
For babies, we watch their cues and verbally label their emotions and explain to them how that emotion may make them feel. It’s as much a part of their development at this age as motor skills and sensory development.
With toddlers, we still help them to label their feelings but we also start to teach them the physical signs of emotions like going red in the face, a rapid heart rate, crying or sweating.
When they’re competent identifying these physical and emotional cues in themselves, we start teaching them strategies to deal with feelings in socially acceptable ways, like:
- Blowing up a balloon – this is a real favourite in our centre. The children start with hands on heads, and then slowly raise their hands and arms with each deep exhale.
- Bubble blowing – similar to the balloon exercise, bubble blowing is a simple breathing exercise which helps toddlers focus on deep breaths, pausing, and then gently exhaling.
- Quiet spaces – some toddlers have favourite spots in our centre where they feel secure and calm. For these toddlers, we can teach them to use these spaces to reset.
Nobody, not even adults, likes to feel out of control. Being able to identify feelings and having strategies to deal with them helps toddlers to feel in control of themselves and promotes a strong sense of self.
How can parents help toddlers manage their emotions?
We communicate regularly with parents about how their toddler is developing and how they respond to stress or circumstances. This communication keeps us all on the same page and gives the toddler consistency at home and in the centre, supporting their development and learning.
Each child is different, so knowing what’s working for your toddler and talking to their educators really helps.
These are some general guidelines for parents to consider:
- If something is working for the toddler in childcare, keep it consistent at home.
- Help your child to label their emotions and describe what they’re feeling. And really listen to them so they understand that their feelings matter.
- If you’re calm and happy, your toddler is likely to feel the same a lot of the time.
- Be mindful of how you react to stressful situations, as you are your child’s most enduring teacher.
- Have quiet, comfortable spaces for them to use when they want to be alone.
Toddlers will always have their ups and downs, so manage your expectations of immediate success! But by working together we can help them develop strong and enduring coping skills which will benefit them their whole life.