Big Toddler Emotions

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

As guardians, our role is many fold and sometimes we are pulled, in an instant, in multiple directions as if necessity dictates we be all things at all times: adult protector, compassionate parent, enforcer of boundaries, behavior model, punisher of misdeeds, teacher of norms, shower of the way, example of perfection…just to name a few.

Regarding emotion, what do you value?

We cannot be all things at all times and so to choose our response wisely, it’s helpful to decide ahead of time what your values are, regarding emotion. What’s the story we tell in our homes, in the way we nurture one another through difficulty? What does that look like and more importantly, what do you want that to look like on a perfect day?

Let’s remember that as toddlers, our children have not yet grown the part of the brain that works through and processes emotions and stress. An emotion is not intellectual, it’s visceral. An emotion is a response to a thought/action. As adults we can move from emotion to intellect, then reason the situation. and then define some truths in our minds, moving us to a reasonable place. Children cannot do this.

If your core value regarding emotion is that at all ages it’s a healthy, normal human response to feel sadness, anger, disappointment, grief, fear, frustration, and exhaustion, then you are on the right track! Anger is a healthy and normal emotional that serves a purpose, just like sadness and grief. Anger tells us a boundary has been crossed while sadness is the message that we do not feel safe, loved and/or accepted. Grief is the feeling of loss when something cherished is gone. Frustration lets us know that our impulse for something natural is being blocked while exhaustion is a full body expression of overload; it’s our body asking us to stop and rest from head to toe, inwardly and outwardly. Fear is a warning.

There is no longer any argument in the scientific community about whether or not there is a body mind connection. We are emotional beings with a physical body and ever the twain shall meet.

Basic Truths About Toddlers and Emotions

  1. Emotions happen and we don’t get to choose how our young child handles disappointment, fatigue, or change.
  2. Once the body reacts and the emotion is happening, adult displeasure in any form rarely brings about a change in the child.
  3. Age appropriate meltdowns are an essential struggle; this is how your child is learning. Put another another way, the struggle is essential (let it happen).

Helpful Guidelines for the Adult

  1. Your child’s emotional meltdown is not intellectual, therefore introducing your intellect into the scenario is not helpful. If your child is under five or six the “passage to abstraction” has not yet happened and so it’s best to stay quiet. Lectures, ideas, opinions, rules, and philosophies need to wait.
  2. When the emotion has passed, the tears have dried, and the personality is again intact, then…move forward with any brief statements you feel you must say. The talking and touching needs to happen when the emotion is over, or when the child shows you she’s ready.
  3. Judgement about the big emotion will never do good, it will only do harm. Can you sit quietly next to your child and accept the fact that in this moment, she is melting down and it will pass?
  4. Pacification is another way of saying, “your emotions are not that important; I’d rather move on from this” or “I’m uncomfortable seeing you upset therefore I’m going to make this stop”. Although it’s a normal reaction for the busy and tired adult to want to move on from the drama, the child needs to work the emotion through and see it to completion. Toys, songs, distraction, bribery, and magic tricks do not allow your child the experience to work through an emotion until it passes naturally.

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.

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