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4 Ways To Help Your Toddler Handle Big Feelings

Photograph by Twenty20

I still remember the look on my grandfather's face—a mixture of emotions that I now recognize as love, helplessness, pain and fear. I was seven years old. My mother was traveling, pursuing her career as a singer. My father was absent in the wake of my parents' messy divorce, and my grandparents were caring for me. I was full of feelings that I couldn't begin to understand, let alone express, but the clearest one was anger. I was furious. Something set me off that day, probably something small and meaningless, but the floodgates opened and I started to rage.

"I'm angry!" I screamed, slamming the door to my bedroom so hard that it bounced open again. My grandfather approached me timidly.

"Don't be angry," he said. "It's not good to be so angry." I burst into tears.

"Why?" I sobbed. "Why can't I be angry?" He didn't have an answer. He just held me until the storm subsided.

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I realize now, almost 30 years later, that as much as my grandfather loved me, my big feelings deeply upset him. He couldn't bear the thought of my pain, of being unable to fix whatever was wrong. He didn't have the words to help me understand my anger and so he tried in a clumsy way to simply make it stop.

Fast forward three decades. It's 8:30 am on Monday, January 4th. After two blissful holiday weeks of having both Mommy and Daddy around every day, the moment has come for Daddy to leave for work.

"Bye-bye, sweetie," he says to our almost two-year-old daughter. "See you tonight. I love you." Her face scrunches up with resistance.

"No!" she yells. "Daddy no go work! Stay home!" He kneels down to hug her.

"I know it's hard," he says. "But we can play together when I get home tonight."

"No!" she says again. But Daddy has to go. I gather her onto my lap.

This is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child—letting her know that even her biggest feelings won't break you or scare you away.

"It looks like you're feeling mad," I say. "You really miss Daddy when he's at work. That's okay. I miss him too."

"Miss Daddy," she says. "Feel bad." She gives a big sigh. But a few minutes later she smiles. "Mommy play with you?" She jumps off my lap and runs toward her room.

Moments like this are getting more frequent and intense as our daughter moves into toddlerhood. She is asserting her personality and independence. She is trying to communicate her needs, wants, and ideas, which are growing more complex. Like all toddlers, she does not yet have the ability to think logically or practice much patience or self-control. And she is full of big feelings that she struggles to express. So every day, we try to use these four techniques to help her understand and cope with her feelings:

1. Label your toddler's feelings for her.

When toddlers feel something, they are often unable to name it. Their vocabulary is limited, and they may not recognize the emotions they are having. You can help by observing and labeling the emotions for them.

"It looks like you're feeling mad. Emily took that ball that you were using, and it made you feel mad."

2. Help your toddler tell her story.

When big feelings hit, toddlers often can't explain what triggered the meltdown. You can help them start to make sense of emotional situations by telling the story of their experience.

"We were playing together in the sandbox. A bigger kid ran by and yelled really loudly. Did the loud noise make you feel scared?"

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3. Model feelings for your toddler.

So many of us never had this kind of emotional education as kids. (Ahem, see exhibit A above.) But we can make an effort now to express feelings clearly, so our kids can copy us.

"I'm so frustrated right now. There's a lot of traffic, and I really want to get home. Maybe listening to some music will make me feel better."

4. Let your toddler know that her feelings don't scare you.

This is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child—letting her know that even her biggest feelings won't break you or scare you away. This helps her feel safe. It shows her that feelings are okay and encourages her not to hide or ignore them. But it also means accepting that we can't fix everything as parents. You can't make the pain stop. You can only teach your child how to manage, express, and heal her big feelings all by herself.

So, when your toddler starts to tell you about how "mad" or "sad" or "frustrated" she is, start doing the happy dance! She's way ahead of a few adults I know.

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