Understanding your child's emotions

Young toddlers and older toddlers will show their emotions differently. By understanding your toddler's emotions and how they change over time, you can help them to understand and cope with their feelings.

Young toddlers (12–18 months old):

  • now feel anxiety and frustration in addition to earlier emotions
  • have little self-control over their feelings or impulses (e.g., biting and hitting)
  • begin to recognize that they have their own feelings
  • don’t yet have the words to express how they feel, so they often show their emotions with their body
  • can be afraid of strange people, objects, animals or events—they can also become anxious when separated from their parents
  • begin to recognize that other people have emotions too
  • don’t yet understand other people’s feelings or views
  • You can help your young toddler understand and cope with feelings

    • Describe and show empathy.
      • Give her a name for her feelings so that she learns the words.
      • Help her to know that you understand and will help her (e.g., use a kind voice to say, “I see you are mad. You really wanted that toy”.).
    • Distract. Use another interesting toy, game or song to distract her.
    • Redirect. Change the activity or move it to a more suitable place.

Older toddlers (18 months–3 years old):

  • feel emotions very strongly and express them with their bodies, whether they’re happy, mad or sad
  • can be overwhelmed by their feelings
  • can get upset when they’re asked to do something they don’t want to do
  • are easily frustrated when they can’t do what they’re trying to do
  • are starting to learn how emotions make them feel inside
  • need help learning how to talk about the way they feel

Your older toddler’s ability to think is developing. When you name her emotions and show that you understand, you are building connections between the emotional and thinking parts of her brain. The next step is to help her learn to show her emotions in ways that won't hurt herself or others.

These skills are known as emotional regulation. This process will take many years to develop. Your child will need lots of help and practice.

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