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Topics in Toddlerhood: Big Emotions

The following post was written by ELC infant/toddler demonstration teacher Jess Capps. Jess is in the middle of a three-year loop and the children in her classroom are currently young toddlers. She originally wrote this piece for the Magnolia classroom blog for families, but we thought it was important to share with other parents and caregivers in our community. This is the first post in a series called “Topics in Toddlerhood” and we hope you’ll visit back for more posts from Jess in the future.

drawing of a tantruming child
We’ve reached a time in the children’s lives that is full of BIG things- big language growth, big leaps in independence and self-help skills, and lots of BIG emotions. I’m planning on doing a series of blog posts about some of these topics (and maybe other hot topics for the toddler years). The first installment in the series is going to focus on coping with big emotions- the emotions that toddlers express in front of us, AND the big emotions that we experience when helping children through their emotions.

What causes big emotions in toddlerhood?

Toddlers are at a point of development with a heightened drive for independence, a self-focused understanding of the world, and limited language skills. It is natural that moments of frustration, intense desire, disappointment, etc., will happen. Toddlers are learning every day what they are capable of, what their boundaries and expectations are, what their peers and siblings can or cannot do, and how to get their needs and desires met by their caregivers. They are in a place where they are feeling lots of things, their brain is making connections that they are not yet aware of, and they aren’t yet able to articulate all of the things they are experiencing. Often, toddlerhood can be the end of familiar comforts such as nursing or pacifiers, which means that children not only still experience all the other changes we mentioned, but now they are losing a favorite coping method and are being challenged to develop new coping skills. Upset moments, outbursts, tantrums, all are part of this process of developing emotional awareness and emotional self-regulation.

What does a toddler need to cope with big emotions?

Difficult or uncomfortable emotions are a part of life. As parents and caregivers, we want so desperately to keep our children safe and happy, and it breaks our hearts when they experience something that causes them strife. It is, however, an unrealistic standard we set for ourselves if our goal is that our children never experience sadness, disappointment, anger, or failure.

What we CAN do, and what we should focus on is how we teach children coping strategies. Janet Lansbury, a mentee of the late and great Magda Gerber, has a wonderfully approachable podcast, website, and has written several books related to early childhood. A frequently discussed topic is coping with emotions, tantrums, etc. Rather than trying to restate her work, I will share with you several episodes from her podcast or links to articles on her website that are relevant to the topic. Here are a few podcast episodes related to this question. I’ve put a * by two selections that I found to be most encouraging and empowering. These resources are meant to be a source of encouragement, empowerment, and acknowledgment. Parenting is hard. Supporting children’s emotional skills is hard. I hope that these nuggets are helpful.

*Podcast: Our biggest challenge as parents
“This is an enormous gift that we can give children. As my mentor, Magda Gerber said, and this was one of the aspects of her approach that resonated deeply with me. She said, “If we can learn to struggle, we can learn to live.” It’s easy for all of us when we’re feeling good and things are going well, but the deeply happy people are the ones who know that they can handle all the feelings they’re going to experience in life, that it’s safe for them to have emotional pain and discomfort. That it passes. This can’t be taught with words or in a class or through books. It’s something that children need to learn experientially. And we’re the main teachers of this for them through the way that we respond when feelings come up. And feelings come up a lot for young children, so we get a lot of practice. That’s the good news. We don’t have to be perfect at this, but ideally, we will want to work on getting on track and staying on track”

Podcast: Should we give a screaming toddler what he wants?

Podcast: Explosive reactions to minor events

Podcast: Kids saying no to boundaries (screaming)

How can caregivers cope when toddlers express big emotions?

Article: Tantrums and Meltdowns: My secret to staying calm when my kids aren’t

Article: Confessions of a Pushover Parent (And how I turned this around)

*Article: The self-care parents need every moment
While I don’t recall infant specialist Magda Gerber using the term ‘self-care’, she was adamant that we treat parenting as a relationship between two whole people from Day One. She insisted that consideration for ourselves should be an integral aspect of our parent-child relationship — as it would be in any other relationship. She understood that while raising children requires a great deal of self-sacrifice, erasing ourselves to serve our children creates resentment for us and insecurity for them. Magda encouraged parents to clearly and confidently communicate their needs because children can’t flourish without clear boundaries and confident leaders.”

What should I do if I’m feeling overwhelmed by my toddler?

Children will experience periods of very volatile emotions. It is developmentally typical for children to experience tantrums. A tantrum is not an emergency. It can feel like an emergency when the child happens to have a meltdown in a very public place. It can also feel like an emergency when we as parents are already feeling stressed, rushed, or heavily emotional ourselves. It can absolutely feel like an emergency, but it’s not.

I am speaking as a fellow toddler parent–not just a teacher. I am absolutely in this boat with you. One of the biggest challenges in guiding children through these emotional storms is maintaining our composure, our calm, and our expectations. When our child melts down in public, it can feel embarrassing- we worry about what people must think of our parenting, or we just don’t want people to stare, or we may worry that (heaven forbid) people will think we are in some way hurting or being mean to our child. Toddler screams can sound quite dramatic. Humans tend not to be the best decision-makers when we are feeling overwhelmed- parenting decisions included. These moments of emotional dumping don’t have to be public for them to feel overwhelming. Sometimes it’s just the cherry on top of a challenging day. Toddlers can make demands seem urgent and that their lives are absolutely dependent on us responding exactly at that moment.  Emotional labor is real, and it’s challenging, and parents do this kind of labor all the time… But we often forget our own emotional hygiene in the process.

I am a fierce advocate for self-care and emotional awareness. Knowing ourselves and caring for ourselves makes us all better parents. It is necessary, not selfish. It will be very beneficial to both our children and ourselves in the long run if we are willing to put in the emotional work to get to know our emotional triggers, our fears, our goals, etc.

I have three questions that I like to ask myself when I’m feeling overwhelmed by my toddler’s behavior.
1. What am I feeling?
2. What is my goal?
3. What am I teaching my toddler right now?

None of these questions have anything to do with what our children should do or change. We are here to guide our children through life, but we can never completely control the actions, demands, or emotions of our children. What we are in control of is our behavior in the challenging situation. Once we can identify our feelings, our goal, and what we are actually teaching our child, we can respond more calmly and effectively in a way that aligns with our values as parents. Also, our children will learn so much from seeing us model healthy strategies for navigating our emotions.

Identifying our emotions as parents can be complex. For example, when we are sleep deprived we can feel particularly sensitive even to things that wouldn’t normally upset us. When we are feeling pressure from the workplace, or there are other stressors around our families, it can be hard to pinpoint our exact emotions. We need to make sure that we can balance our own emotions before we can ask ourselves to help balance our children. If we are out of balance, it is our responsibility to balance ourselves first before responding. Sometimes acknowledging, “I’m exhausted and angry,” is enough to help us accept how we’re feeling and move past it for that moment. Sometimes it will take more.

Once we balance ourselves, we need to identify our goal for our child. Sometimes our goal might be, “I want my child to learn to cope when they don’t get what they want,” or “I want my child to use appropriate outlets for anger,” or  “I want my child to recognize this behavior is not ok.” The particular goal doesn’t matter. What matters is that when we acknowledge the goal, it helps us feel more accountable for our decisions. Once we recognize our goal, it feels easier to identify the most appropriate response. We will not always choose the most appropriate response- We (parents, and really all adults caring for children) are human. We will make mistakes, we will get tired, our resolve won’t be sturdy enough every time. That’s ok! We have every day to try again.

The next time you find yourself standing in a public place with a tantruming child, feel free to use my favorite mantra, “This isn’t happening TO me, it’s happening IN FRONT of me.”