Tears before bedtime - toddler emotions
If ever there was a true statement in parenting it’s the one that says ‘no two children are alike’. Psychologist, parenting expert and mother of three, Dr Chantal Gazal knows this well. Put that statement to any one of the many parents she has seen in the course of her work and they might immediately launch into how Tom differs from Tim, one more reserved, the other impulsive; one taking life in his stride, the other finding drama in the every day minutiae of life.
In this extract from her recently published book, The Happy Toddler, she focuses on what drives toddlers to react to life at this age…and how to keep smiling while weathering the emotional storms.
All toddlers feel the same emotions as adults and experience the same feelings. Children need to feel joy, love, sadness, fear, excitement and frustration; even the negative ones (like jealousy and anger) are healthy and necessary for them to develop into happy and emotionally healthy adults.
How they manage those feelings and emotions is often due partly to their individual temperament – when a parent refuses to give into a child’s demands, some children will feel mildly irritated, others will be passionately enraged. Some children adapt to change without difficulty, while still others are frustrated easily with only minor changes in routines.
But toddlers express their feelings differently from adults: intensely, immaturely and impulsively – hence the loud voice in church, the tantrum at the dinner table whilst visitors are present, or the inexplicable tears when dressing!
Handling emotions constructively
Children learn to express their emotions primarily by watching the way those adults close to them deal with their own (adult) emotions and secondly by watching the way close adults react to their (toddler) emotions.
If an adult shouts and smacks when he gets angry, then the watching toddler learns that that is the way to express anger. If an adult calls being scared of a dog ‘silly’, then the toddler learns it’s not okay to be scared and is more likely to hide their feelings of fear the next time they’re scared.
To nurture a toddler’s emotional development:
- Accept and respect their feelings and tell them so, even if their way of expressing those feelings is not okay!‘I understand that you’re angry because Jacinta pushed you, but you cannot hit her’.
- Share your feelings – both positive, ‘I’m happy to see you’, and negative, ‘I’m cross because of the mess in the family room’.
- Teach the message that others have feelings too, (even the dog!) – ‘Marcus is sad because he hasn’t had a turn’.
- Allow comfort objects – these can help a toddler to deal with fears and feel more secure within themselves.
- Avoid denying your toddlers feelings. Doing so won’t change how they feel; we wouldn’t deny a friend’s feelings, so why do so to your own child? People’s feelings don’t change simply because others say they shouldn’t have them!
- Don’t put down, humiliate or embarrass your child for expressing feelings as that can be damaging to self confidence; rather teach her to express her feelings in an acceptable way. Crying and anger are not reasons for punishment – only if they’re expressed inappropriately, by hitting or biting.
Be patient! It takes time and practice to learn to deal effectively with emotions (and they’re just your own as a parent). Your toddler is only just beginning to learn to control their impulses and will need many reminders and strategies before she can manage her emotions on her own.
Teach by example
Your child learns from what you do and what you say; you need to express your feelings as you would like her to express hers. For example, when you get angry, calmly talk about what you feel and why, leave the room or read a book until you calm down and then talk constructively about it later. This way she learns that this is the way to deal with anger. If you shout at or smack her when you get angry, she learns that shouting or hitting is the way to express anger.
Help your toddler to understand and name feelings.
Because she cannot yet understand her emotions, you need to teach her these. Even though she may tremble with fear or scream with anger, unless you name these feelings for your child she won’t understand what she is experiencing or have the words to express them.
Use reflective listening
This means listening attentively to your toddler, working out what she is feeling and telling her what you’ve seen or heard her express. For example, when you see sadness in her eyes as you leave, say, ‘You feel sad that Mummy has to go out’. And when you see fear on her face, say, ‘You’re scared of the big dog’. This is a useful tool to teach her about her feelings.
Read stories dealing with feelings
Children’s stories often deal with the expression of all types of feelings including anger jealousy, sadness and fear. Reading these can help your toddler make more sense of her own experience.
Play with puppets or dolls
When you’re not sure what she is experiencing, a doll or puppet can help you find out. For example, Alex has been getting angry and biting. While playing with Alex’s puppet koala, Daddy asks her if Koala bites. Alex says ‘yes’. Daddy asks why. Alex says, ‘Koala’s scared’. Daddy asks, ‘What is Koala scared of? She answers, ‘Koala’s scared of Mummy and Daddy shouting and fighting’.
Use an ‘I’ message when you have strong feelings
These are a useful way to express your own strong negative feelings: ‘I feel so angry when I’m on the phone and you make a lot of noise, because I can’t hear’.
Many of today’s adults were not encouraged to express their feelings as a child. Negative feelings were seen as unhealthy. The general attitude was that if the expression of the feeling was stopped or denied, then the feeling would go away.
Expressing feelings was seen as a weakness - if they were boys and cried, it was seen as weak or sissy; if girls, that ‘nice’ girls don’t show anger. Health professionals today agree that children who are encouraged to express their emotions in an appropriate manner are more likely to develop into happy and emotionally healthy adults.
All toddlers cry (some more than others), but there is always a reason!
Crying is the natural way for a toddler to express discontent – don’t assume there is nothing wrong and ignore crying before ruling out the following reasons.
- He feels angry, sad or afraid.
- He is sick or in pain
- He wants your attention
- He wants his own way.
When your toddler cries:
- Stay calm.
- Work out why your toddler is crying and respond accordingly.
- Show understanding and empathy.
- Teach him words that name his feelings.
- Avoid getting angry, shouting or smacking.
- Don’t reward him to stop his crying.
- Don’t give in to his demands.
- Don’t overindulge him.
- Don’t try to toughen him up.
The Happy Toddler- A parent’s guide to nurturing a happy and confident toddler, by Dr. Chantal Gazal, Published by Insight Publications.
Find lots of clear and practical advice on the challenging, trying, demanding stimulating world that is life with a toddler! The book covers managing everyday routines such as bedtime and mealtimes; tantrums, whingeing and defiance and understanding discipline styles, strategies and their effectiveness. Critical to this are the two key questions; what are you teaching your child and what are you encouraging in your child?
Chantal Gazal is a psychologist in private practice in Sydney. Her special areas of interest include parenting skills, child behaviour problems, ADD/ADHD (alternatives to medication) and adjustment to motherhood.
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, November 2004. Updated July 2009.