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Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers learn about Emotion

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Dr. Markham,
You always talk about teaching young children to understand their emotions by giving them words for their feelings. But how do you do that? When do you start? 


What a great question! How do we teach toddlers and preschoolers the language for their feelings, which helps them learn to manage all those stormy emotions?

1. Label emotions as often as possible by empathizing with your baby's feelings from the earliest ages:

  • "Wow! That's cold!"
  • "What a big smile! You're happy!"
  • "You are so sad, you just need to cry. That's ok, Sweetie, Mom will hold you while you show me those sad feelings."
  • "You are so mad! You don't like it when your brother pushes you. You can tell your brother, 'Don't push me!'"

Children need to hear words for about six months before they can use the words themselves. So we want to begin using "feeling" words as soon as we begin talking to our babies. We help children identify emotions every time we refer to an emotion.

In the same way that we model thanking Aunt Margaret for the present, by holding our child and saying "Josh loves the truck, Auntie, thank you so much!", we use our words on behalf of our child to support him to express his indignant feelings when his brother pushes him: "Alexander, do you see Josh's face? He's telling you that he doesn't like it when you push him."

2. Play "Name that feeling" by making faces at each other and guessing what feeling is being expressed. Little ones love this game, but usually can't play it until they are at least two so they can verbalize the name of the feeling.

3. Play the "If you're happy and you know it" game with different feelings:

  • "If you're happy and you know it" - clap your hands 
  • "If you're mad and you know it" - stomp your foot 
  • "If you're sad and you know it" - cry a tear 
  • "If you're hungry and you know it" - rub your tum 
  • "If you're tired and you know it" - give a yawn 
  • "If you're antsy and you know it" - jump up and down 
  • "If you're shy and you know it" - peek through your hands 
  • "If you're silly and you know it" - giggle and twist 
  • "If you're loved and you know it" - hug your mom or dad 

This game is fun for all ages and has the advantage of helping kids identify the sensations in their body that they will come to know as feelings.

It also give kids ways to handle their big feelings, if you use it to practice:
"If you're mad and you know it, dance it out!" (or blow air out, shake it out, shout it out, etc)

4. Play "Feelings" with stuffed animals. The parent uses the stuffed animals to act out emotions, with the puppet baby telling the puppet parent "I'm MAD!" and acting the part. The puppet parent, of course, responds by accepting the little one's feelings and loving him through them. As my three year old said, holding his train engines:

"I'm mad at you, Gordon, I'll throw you in the trash!" 

"That's ok, Thomas, you can be mad at someone and love them at the same time."

5. Tell stories about your child's feelings. "Jack came to visit and you were so excited to play with him...Then he played with your dump truck and you got worried...Maybe you worried that Jack would take the truck home? But your dump truck lives here with you, it is yours, so no one will take it home. Jack was just enjoying it...You said NO! and you hit Jack, right? You didn't want him to play with it. Then I said 'No hitting!' and I took the dump truck and put it up high, and you cried and cried. I held you and you felt better. Then you and Jack played trains. And then Jack went home, and now you are holding your dump truck and you are so happy to see it, aren't you?" 

Why tell such a story? To help your child make sense of all those intense feelings. And to let him know that all feelings are okay, even if clobbering his friend with the dump truck isn't.

6. Wonder about the feelings of others. Research shows that when parents "wonder" with their toddlers and preschoolers what an infant sibling is feeling or thinking, the child is nicer to the baby a year later. It seems to help him develop empathy for his sibling. But you don't need to limit yourself to siblings. When you witness any child experience intense feeling, comment on it to your child and express curiosity, concern or empathy.  

  • "That little boy is crying....I wonder why he's sad...."
  • "That little girl looks so upset.....Oh, I see! Her ice cream fell! She's so disappointed."
  • "See that boy holding his little sister's hand? I wonder how he feels being a big brother?"

7. Read books about feelings. Aliki's book Feelings was a favorite with my daughter for years, although 18 months may still be a bit early for it. But there are many other good books out there for toddlers; check out the books on this page: Books to Help Kids Develop Emotional Intelligence.

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