Talking to your toddler about their own feelings

Baby’s world is one that he is trying to learn about and understand better every day, and his first teacher in most subjects is your family. So many ideas are new and exciting and foreign to him, and one of the biggest mysteries he encounters every day is the mystery of his own emotions. Your role in helping him unravel this mystery is to help him learn to label which emotion he is feeling, and help him process the situation that got him feeling that way.

Emotional intelligence is a trait we can help our children with at a very early age. As every toddler develops at a different rate, there are a few activities and strategies that can help you help Baby learn how to label, understand, and cope with all of his changing emotions.

  • Feelings boards: These tools can be found online, or you can even make your own, if you’re feeling a little crafty. Feelings boards are a fantastic tool for helping to teach toddlers about emotions. These boards come in wood, felt, plastic, paper, and other materials, and show figures making facial expressions that show a range of feelings, which are labeled on the board. Playing with these boards can help toddlers understand the range of emotions that exist, as well as the facial cues and the symptoms that often go with each one. The boards can be helpful for beginning the conversation with Baby about emotions, and are also a great tool to use in the moments of frustration or melt-down to help him put a name to what he is feeling. You can grab the board and ask Baby  to point or label the face on the board that represents how he is feeling. This is a way for him to express themselves in the moment, and can even help him out the next time, when he might remember how to label that emotion in the moment.
  • Read books about feelings: Even for adults, reading has been shown to help build feelings of empathy. For toddlers, reading can also give them the framework to start thinking about feelings, and can start to introduce ideas about emotions when toddlers are calm, and might be able to think more clearly about what they’re hearing.
  • Role-play feelings with stuffed animals: This kind of play allows you to act out different scenarios with Baby, as another opportunity for him to think about strong feelings at moments when he is feeling calm, and not caught up in his emotions. By acting out scenes with characters, you also give Baby the chance to start to problem-solve about how to deal with strong emotions.
  • Lead by example: You have the chance to teach Baby how to handle his emotions by showing him how well you handle yours. You can start to do this by sharing your own emotions as they come up. “I am very sad because Grandma just left and I love when Grandma is here.” “I am very happy because we are having cookies as dessert tonight and I love chocolate.” Talking through your emotions as they come up is a helpful way to show Baby all the different types of emotions that human beings deal with on a daily basis. Even more important is talking out loud about what you’re doing to deal and cope with these emotions. “I am very mad that we have to wait in this long line, would you like to do jumping jacks with me so we can get some exercise while we wait?” “I am very happy that tomorrow we are going on a trip to Florida. Let’s listen to music and dance!” “I am sad that our team lost the big game. When I’m sad I like to take a short nap to feel recharged.” Letting Baby hear you talking through emotions and seeing you using coping mechanisms encourages him to follow similar processes themselves.

As he grows and changes, the way Baby thinks and talks about his own feelings will grow and change, too, but giving him the tools he needs to talk about how he is feeling right now can make a big difference as he figures out how to express themselves in the future.

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