Although toddlers can't yet verbalize their complicated emotions, their behavior often shows exactly what they are feeling. How you react to their behavior determines whether you meet your child's emotional needs. Frequent tantrums, bouts of aggression and crying for seemingly no reason can leave even seasoned parents questioning whether they're responding appropriately to meet a toddler's complex emotional needs.
Need to Feel Secure
Safety and security are essential to toddler's emotional well-being. Promote feelings of security by showing your toddler that you follow through with what you say. "Parents need to be honest with consequences and with promises," says Pamela Morris, assistant early childhood director at East Valley Jewish Community Center in Chandler, Ariz. When you say you'll go to the playground after naptime, it's important to keep your word. Even following through with consequences, such as taking away a toy when your toddler doesn't listen, builds security.
Need to Feel Heard
Despite their limited verbal skills, toddlers want to be heard. Thus, their efforts to communicate what they want or need can cause a lot of frustration when adults don't understand. "They are doing their best, and you don't want to stifle communication," says Philadelphia-based parenting coach Brandi Davis, author of "O.K. I'm A Parent, Now What?" Davis recommends that parents put in extra effort to try to understand their toddler's attempts to communicate. Ask her to point out what she wants—or teach her "baby sign language" so she can express herself.
Children want and need to feel connected to others."They need to be brought in, to be made to feel a part of things, to feel connected to other people, to have a sense of community," writes educator Gerald Newmark in his book, "How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children." Engage toddlers in activities that help them feel like they are a part of the family. Build a tower from blocks, create a fort or bake some cookies together. Praise their efforts and thank them for their contributions to the project.
Need to Feel Loved
Just like adults, toddlers need to feel loved. When parents devote their time and attention to kids, it helps them feel secure in the fact that they are loved. "Parents can ensure this security by being consistent in their availability," says Cindy Liu, a clinical and developmental psychologist from Harvard Medical School who specializes in socio-emotional development. "It doesn't mean that the parents themselves need to be with their child all the time, but it does mean that the child can expect unconditional care and love from them," Liu says.
Need to Feel Validated
Toddlers often exhibit intense moods that can change quickly. Tantrums and outbursts are common and at times, unpredictable. According to Liu, parents don't necessarily need to try to make toddlers happy all the time. "Rather than trying to make a child feel happy, parents can meet their needs by validating their reactions and helping them to regulate their emotions—whether it be anger or excitement—in a way that is socially appropriate," Liu suggests. If a toddler is sad that he can't play outside, don't offer him a cookie to cheer him up. Instead, validate his feelings by saying, "I know you feel sad right now because you can't go outside."
Toddlers need to feel like they are accepted by others. Spend time watching and listening to your toddler and reflecting on what's he's doing without trying to teach him anything. If he's playing with a dollhouse and he puts the bathtub on the roof, say, "Oh look, the bathtub is up on the roof," rather than insisting the bathtub has to go in the bathroom. Showing acceptance can build self-esteem and help him to learn empathy.