Teaching Toddlers how to Deal with Big Emotions

Mr 2-year-old puts his shoes on (the wrong feet) points to the door and says “park.”

It’s a sunny morning and his parent says “great idea,” “I’ll just get my jacket and shoes and we’ll go.”


It is deceivingly cold outside, so parent whizzes to their wardrobe for some wintry additions and swings past Mr 2-year-old’s room to get his jacket and hat. The parent starts to put the jacket on one arm of Mr 2-year-old and he says “no jacket.” Parent tries again, and Mr 2-year-old’s tone is more assertive and “NO!” is the answer to any and all wardrobe adjustments, including trying to get his shoes on the right feet. Parent persists by calmly saying “it’s cold outside,” “we’re going to the park,” but alas, Mr 2-year-old drops his body to the floor, kicking, screaming and crying a yelp so piercing that his parent feels like they have completely ruined Mr 2-year-old's day because they were trying to keep him warm. Normal? Yep. Challenging? Most definitely. It is only 9am after all and there’s more where that came from.


The toddler years are vital for building emotional competence (skills in understanding and regulating emotions). Yet they are often a stressful and challenging time for parents because toddlers express big emotions as they strive for independence. Developmental theorist, Erikson (1963), believed humans undergo developmental change throughout the lifespan in an eight-stage model. During the Autonomy vs. Shame stage from ages 1 to 3 years, children begin to discover the power they possess. This stage is important for a child to develop autonomy and self-esteem. As toddlers increase their capabilities to do more for themselves, adults’ foster autonomy when they allow reasonable free choice without force or shame. The popular word at this age is “no” and toddlers' thirst for independence comes with big emotions that manifest as tantrums.


Big emotions often include anger and frustration. These big emotions grow in intensity and involve either a strong need for immediate access to the parent or a rejection of the parent (e.g., pushing away the parent). Big emotions involve a change of facial expression and vocalisations beyond simple crying, whining, or yelling, and may include physical aggression, destruction of property, arching the back, falling to the floor, and even less common behaviours such as turning to the corner, freezing, withdrawing from the parent, holding one's breath or self-injury. When children are having emotional tantrums, they are telling us that they’re in deep emotional pain and they cannot cope on their own.


When a toddler is overcome by stress, such as rage, a little alarm called the amygdala in his or her emotional brain (the limbic or lower brain) is triggered. The toddler’s logical (thinking) brain (the prefrontal cortex or higher brain) is not sufficiently developed to manage the reaction of the alarm system. To control strong emotions, a child needs to develop connections between the logical and emotional brain.


The way parents manage their own emotions and how they respond to their toddler’s emotions is important for reducing distress, promoting development and preventing future emotional and behaviour problems.

And so parents search for a balance between providing boundaries for exploration with being emotionally sensitive and attuned. How can you teach toddlers to deal with big emotions?


Teach your toddler feelings words

Your toddler is busy learning numbers, colours, body parts, animals, objects, family members and more every day and... feelings can be added to this list. I often see children in my clinic who have a limited feelings vocabulary. It is not uncommon for children, even at primary school age to be using only a small number of feelings words to describe their experiences. Angry, sad, happy, scared. It often ends there. But even when language is limited, young children can learn to recognise and label a range of feelings. Worried, frustrated, disappointed, silly etc. Why is a feelings vocabulary so important?


If children have a word for a feeling, then parents can help them to recognise when they are experiencing that feeling. And knowing what you are feeling is the first step to understanding that feelings change with the situation, they come and go, and there are helpful ways to express them.


So in the same way that you might teach your child about colours, source some feelings cards (e.g., bear cards from https://innovativeresources.org/resources/card-sets/bears-cards/ ) or books about feelings, or create your own and practice recognising and labelling feelings. For example, I play a game with my preschool clients (and my 2-year-old son) where I pick up a card, I make my face look like the emotion on the card and the child has to guess which feeling I am acting out. We take turns, and I also encourage this game to be played at home with different family members, so the child learns that feelings can be expressed in different ways. Feelings cards can be helpful to have handy, so your toddler can point to a card to express a feeling that they may have noticed either in themselves or someone else, without the need for words.


When children develop a vocabulary for feelings, you can teach them to use words (or visual prompts), instead of actions, i.e., throwing things, to express their feelings.


Label the feelings you notice in your toddler

Labelling the feelings that you see in your toddler is an important part of developing emotional competence. Labelling feelings in the moment is vital for your toddler to develop an awareness of the feelings spectrum.


For example, if your toddler is doing a puzzle and the piece isn’t working the way they would like, they might throw the puzzle piece in frustration. Parents often respond with “don’t throw the puzzle piece.” This response addresses the behaviour, but does not acknowledge the feeling. Instead, labelling the feeling you notice can help your toddler understand what they are experiencing, and then you can address the behaviour by voicing what you would like to see instead. For example, you could say something like “I see you are getting frustrated that your piece doesn’t fit,” “you could ask for help,” or “you could try again.” Over time, your toddler learns what frustration feels like, but also learns that they can sit with the feeling and problem solve with their thinking brain.


When big feelings erupt, labelling feelings can accompany the comfort you provide to your child, and the focus during a tantrum can be more on the feeling itself, and less on the situation that may have triggered it. For example, “I see you’re feeling angry,” “sad,” “disappointed.” “I’m here for you.”


Use simple choices or distraction

When a tantrum starts forming, sometimes parents can promptly alleviate it by addressing the issue at hand. For example, if a toddler doesn’t want to get dressed for bed, parents can ask them to choose the pyjamas they might like to wear.


When questions with simple choices are presented, the toddler’s thinking brain is activated. This prevents the emotional brain from taking over.


Distracting your toddler’s attention with a toy, a silly song or funny noise can also prevent a tantrum from forming. Nevertheless, it is important not to consistently distract the child away from the feeling as they also need to learn how to sit with distress in order to develop self-regulation skills. When it comes to emotion coaching, it is important to pick your battles. For example, offering simple choices after a long day at daycare, may prevent an unnecessary tantrum triggered by tiredness or hunger or using distraction when emotions are high in the car on the freeway to ensure driver concentration, may be more appropriate responses than sitting with the distress.


Be present and responsive instead of reactive

As a parent, you know your toddler best, and this knowledge is your best asset when the big emotion erupts. Tantrums can definitely catch us by surprise, but when considering below, reflect on a tantrum that you suspected was coming. For example, when you needed to enforce a boundary, and whether or not you chose to use the word, your answer was essentially “no.”


For younger toddlers, tantrums typically start from an intense emotion, such as disappointment or deep frustration. For example, a toddler who wants to go outside and the door is locked. For whatever reason, perhaps its raining, it might be dark, or perhaps the parent needs to enforce the boundary to prevent the child from going in and out at their will, the door needs to stay locked. The tantrum might build from attempts to open the door, then anger directed at the door, whinging, crying, yelling, screaming etc. Then attention may turn to the caregiver. Some toddlers seek comfort in their distress whilst others reject their caregivers, but either way the toddler needs their parent in their moment of distress.


Once your child’s big emotion has erupted, trying to distract your toddler, or rationalise (e.g., “you can go outside later ok?) is unlikely to be effective. Once the big emotion has erupted, your toddler needs you to be present and responsive. This is where knowing your child and what they need when they are distressed is helpful.


Physical comfort such as hugging or holding can calm your toddler’s body and produce oxytocin (the feel-good chemical). Sometimes, toddlers reject physical contact, so positive words and encouragement can help. Also labelling feelings can be comforting and help a child feel understood. For example, “I can see that you’re angry,” “Daddy’s here for you.”


It can be really difficult for parents to manage their own distress during a tantrum. Parents are often seeking ways to stop their child’s distress, in part because it is difficult to sit with their own uncomfortable feelings. Sitting with the feeling in a calm and comforting way teaches your child that feelings will pass and you model to them that they can face difficulties without losing control of their emotions.

Sometimes parents find it helpful to develop a mantra for themselves during a tantrum. Such as “my child’s angry, this feeling will pass.” This can prevent parents from reacting with two many words or unhelpful phrases.


In older toddlers, a tantrum can build from a power struggle. Children do learn that emotional responses can lead to a desired end goal, and so enforcing boundaries is especially important. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that older toddlers are still learning to self-regulate and a tantrum often builds and reaches a point where the child is no longer responding to the situation, but responding to their inability to manage the feeling.


Maintaining your stance on the boundary can be made clear, e.g., "no more snacks, time for dinner soon," whilst still offering comfort. Offering a hug, a pat on the back or physical pressure can help your toddler’s body calm down. Once the intensity starts to reduce, activities that help your toddler express their feelings like play doh, fidget toys or drawing can be useful. A change of scenery, a job they can do or watching you do an activity can help with transition as the feeling subsides.


Feelings box

It can be helpful to have a box or tin somewhere handy in the house that includes toys / activities that can aid self-expression. Sensory-based toys such as things you can pull, stretch, safely throw, tangle, splat or fiddle with can be a great way for toddlers to express their feelings in a safe and helpful way.


For example, in my 2-year-old’s feelings box, I keep a set of bear cards, and a range of sensory toys that only come out when my toddler needs some expression time (www.sensoryoasisforkids.com.au have a great range of sensory toys). I keep it somewhere visible, so he can ask for it if he wishes. I also bring it out when I sense big emotions or after he has had a tantrum. The idea is that it will grow with him and will continue to include developmentally appropriate ways to manage big emotions. By allowing him to access it when he likes, it encourages self-regulation. I use it too when I feel frustrated or worried, to help model how the items inside can help express feelings.


As a child psychologist, I know that tantrums are a typical and important part of toddler development. Nevertheless, as a parent, I also know that they can be very challenging, especially when they happen at less convenient times. Creating opportunities for your toddler to build their independence, such as offering choices, encouraging them to help with self-care and household tasks and allowing time for them to problem solve will help minimise big emotions. Nevertheless, big emotions will take you by surprise and sometimes no matter how much we tune in, we cannot always predict what our toddler will experience. Remember, feelings catch us by surprise too. Nevertheless, we can validate our toddler’s feelings and help them develop their self-expression whilst teaching them to regulate feelings so they don't overwhelm them.


Tantrums are a normal part of development, however, sometimes the frequency and intensity of tantrums can be concerning. If your child's tantrums are interfering with your family’s functioning or if you would like some support managing your child’s emotions or behaviour, one of our psychologists at Mind & Seek can help.


As a first step, visiting your General Practitioner or Paediatrician can help address whether your child’s tantrums may be a cause for concern. Or please contact us on 0452 526 463 to find out more about our services and our psychologists.


Dr Chaille Breuer

Clinical Psychologist


References


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Erikson, E. H. (1963). Youth: Change and challenge. Basic books.


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Havighurst, S. S., Kehoe, C. E., Harley, A. E., Johnson, A. M., Allen, N. B., & Thomas, R. (2019). Tuning in to Toddlers: Research protocol and recruitment for evaluation of an emotion socialization program for parents of toddlers. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1054.


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