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.
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
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?"
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
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.