Teaching Your Toddler About Feelings

by Twigtale 

Is your family coping with a loss or a difficult transition? Young children may have a particularly hard time expressing their grief. Sadness and anger are normal after a loss, but most toddlers haven’t developed the language skills necessary to verbalize their feelings. Therefore, rather than communicating with “I” statements followed by thoughtful self-reflection, it’s more likely to be tears, tossing toys, stomping feet and pushing other kids.

Dr. Harvey Karp, our Editor-in-Chief, explains that you shouldn’t condone this behavior and you need to set clear limits. However, it is also critically important to validate your child’s feelings…using a very particular type of communication that works best with children who are upset (and have switched off the more patient, mature left side of their brain),

In his DVD and book “The Happiest Toddler on the Block,” Karp underscores that children whose feelings are dismissed may learn to suppress or ignore them. Eventually this can lead to significant problems in connecting with others.

On the other hand, parents who encourage their young children  to express their feelings - use a slightly odd, but incredibly effective 3-step way of speaking, called Toddler-ese – encourage their child’s emotional resilience, increase resiliency against bullying and teach their children the basics about how to have better friendships.

(The 3 steps of Toddler-ese are: Very short phrases of acknowledgment…repeated 5-10 times…using about a third of your tot’s emotional level.)

It is important to note that toddlers are often confused as to what they are actually feeling. Dr. Karp recommends explaining the physical indicators that signal different feelings. For example, you might feel pain or cry when you are sad. Anger might make you clench their fists. Happiness makes many people smile. Once your child can identify her emotions, you can help her find constructive ways to cope with them. Here are Dr. Karp’s suggestions for teaching your child to express her feelings:

Age 1 – Demonstrate emotions by mirroring about a third of your child’s instinctual behavior and matching it to the appropriate words. If your child is angry because she can’t go outside, then point to the door, furrow your brow, make a fist and stomp your feet. You can say, “Outside! Outside! You want outside! Now!  You’re mad, mad, mad! You’re mad because you want outside…now!”  Then, as your child calms, you can gradually return to your more normal way of speaking to give your explanation or offer options.

Ages 2-4 – During a peaceful time of the day, have your child show you how she expresses different emotions. Ask to see her mad, sad, scared and happy faces.

Create a personalized book with pictures of her displaying these different feelings. Use it to expand your child’s vocabulary so she can accurately describe her feelings. For example, is she happy, joyful, ecstatic or content? Is she mad or furious? Besides talking about feelings, encourage her to identify additional healthy coping skills such as drawing, quiet time, or a specific type of play that comforts her.


Dr. Harvey Karp is Twigtale's Editor-in-Chief. He is a renowned pediatrician, child developmental specialist, and one of America’s most trusted parenting experts.  Website: www.happiestbaby.com.  Follow him on Facebook and Twitter