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Toddler Talk: Reflecting Feelings

I often hear parents express frustration that they have difficulty understanding what their toddler is feeling. Since young children often struggle with language, and even further with making sense of their emotions, they literally cannot tell you what they feel. The encouraging news is that there is an extremely simple technique that will provide a solution!

Reflecting feelings, the final skill in this series of tools for effective play time with your children, provides you with the ability to identify and reflect the emotions that you observe in your kids. When your child expresses a feeling, verbally or non-verbally, you act as a mirror for their emotion, and tell them what you observed. An easy way to think about this is, “say what they show.”

So, an example of how you might do this during play time is as follows:

Your child turns with a frown and his eyes downcast and holds up a broken toy. You could say, “You are upset” or “You are sad that the toy broke.” Notice that you start with “you” and add the feeling that you believe the child is expressing. If you want to also include a qualifier about the feeling, you add that last. Both examples are equally effective, the latter just adds more information.

Another example would be if your child begins to jump up and down with a smile while saying, “I love this dollhouse!” You might say, “You are really happy to have the dollhouse to play with” or “You are so excited.”

The benefit of reflecting feelings is that a child begins to connect internal sensations with feeling words, building their emotional vocabularies. A child will feel butterflies in his stomach, which we as adults understand as nervous or anxious, but it will just feel uncomfortable to him. As you teach him the word for that emotion, he is better able to tell you what he is experiencing in the future.

As you become comfortable with the three skills in this series when playing with your child, you will eventually be able to integrate all three in one moment. Your child is painting, and says, “This paint is awesome” and laughs. You can respond, “You are making dots with the paint (tracking behavior), and you are happy (reflecting feelings) that it’s awesome paint (reflecting content).”

Observing emotions, identifying them, and telling your child what she is expressing helps in two major ways. First, she is able to regulate emotions better and communicate more effectively with awareness of what others are observing. If you reflect sadness and she is angry, she will tell you. This helps her adjust her expression to be more accurate. Further, you will pay more attention to subtle differences in feelings to accurately and clearly reflect the emotion (frustrated rather than mad, defeated instead of upset), thus communicating to your children how much what they feel matters to you.

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