3 Simple Responses to Big Toddler Emotions

Topics: Ages 0-3, Ages 3-6, Behavior, Family Life

We’ve all been with our toddlers during moments of deep emotional distress. Sometimes, it comes in the form of an explosion with tears and screaming. Sometimes, it involves a collapse onto the floor. Sometimes, there’s even hyperventilation and full body shudders and weeping. And almost always, the distress is a reaction to something that we find absolutely puzzling. These moments are difficult for everyone.

What we know from the research is that during the strong toddler emotion, the still developing parts of the brain that would be useful in the calming down process are completely offline. The child’s still growing brain has succumbed to the irrational, overloaded, non-processing mode. Words, suggestions, consequences, pep talks…they are all for naught until the moment has passed.

So what do we do? Do we freeze, with sweaty palms and quickening breath, wishing our toddler was a different person? Do we immediately request better behavior and stand over the child with folded arms, waiting for compliance? Do we anxiously project 20 years into the future and envision that our child will be an emotional mess and never complete college? If you are a parent, you’ve probably experienced all or some of these feelings.

Is there a way to be present and accept the moment, and give the child the space and time she needs to get through the difficult moment? Yes, and here are three simple steps you can take to get started:

  1. Identify Your Emotion. For some parents, it’s anger. For others, it’s anxiety. Some parents in that moment may even be disappointed in who their child is as a human being. If you can identify your emotion, you can then move toward some non-emotional, rational facts about the situation which are a) we do not get to choose how our toddler reacts emotionally and b) our reactive emotion is not helpful during this essential struggle. Once we realize our emotion is our own to bear and it’s not healthy to put our emotion onto an already upset child, we see the wisdom in taking a deep breath and handling ourselves before we handle the child. Accept yourself and your own emotions, then offer that same compassion to your child.
  2. Offer the child a private space. During this essential struggle, the toddler will handle the overload better in a place not teaming with strangers, people, onlookers, and sensorial input. If the outburst is lasting with no signs of quick recovery, exit the location of distress. If there is a quiet space (foyer, back porch, empty room, quiet office, car) it might be best to either gently take your child by the hand and let her walk to a recovery spot or, gently and lovingly carry your child and put her down immediately. This isn’t a coddling moment.
  3. Sit next to your child and just be. Don’t try to fix it. Don’t try to stop the tears or screaming. Let it all happen. If you have a hugger, let your child crawl into your lap and weep. If you have a stomper, let your child rage on and express the negative emotions. Adults who handle emotions in a healthy way had practice in childhood, so let your child practice. When the tears start to dry, the shoulders stop shaking and the energy shifts back to the rational, just go with the flow. Some children change the subject and start babbling about something else, as if the whole incident never happened. Others want you to show you understand and need you to wrap it up for them:
    • “Wow, you were really upset! It looks like you feel better. Would you like to go back now?”
    • “Would you like to cuddle a little before we go back into the restaurant?”
    • “When your friend took your train, you got really mad. But now it’s over. Are you ready to play trains again?”

The best we can offer toddlers during these rough times is acceptance. Keeping shame, expectation, judgement, and advice at bay is the peaceful, healthy way to go.

About the Author

Natalie Baginski is Head of School at Toddlers on the Hill in Washington, DC. She writes about toddlers, peaceful parenting and Montessori philosophy.

Read more from Natalie on “The Art of Peaceful Parenting” and “Big Toddler Emotions.”

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