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Helping little ones navigate big feelings: 5 questions with a licensed clinical psychologist
January 04, 2023
Parent kissing sad toddler

    Helping little ones navigate big feelings

    Sometimes the most enormous expressions of emotion come from the tiniest tots. We’re all born with innate emotions and it takes time and growth to learn to process them given individual temperament, home environment and cultural factors.

    Dr. Michele Cosby, a licensed clinical psychologist at our Virginia Treatment Center for Children, explains how parents and caregivers can help our little ones learn to navigate their big feelings.

    How can parents help their toddlers process their feelings?

    Help your child know it’s okay to feel their feelings. They’re human and all people have feelings. That said, little ones often don’t have the language to describe what they’re experiencing so their frustration comes out through behavior.

    The first step is helping them learn to identify what they’re feeling and why. “It looks like you’re sad because you broke your toy." Name the feeling, acknowledge it, then help them learn to cope. Start with basic emotions like happy and sad and then add more as their communication skills grow. Make a habit of providing significant praise – or a "praise party” – when your child attempts to handle their big feelings in a healthy way.

    Take a deep breath yourself! Most often, your kiddo is trying to communicate, not attempting to be difficult on purpose. Toddlers can feel our emotions, just like we can feel theirs. If we want calm from them, we need to try our best to stay calm ourselves.

    What are some ways adults can model emotional regulation?

    Not only can toddlers feel our emotions, but they imitate our behaviors. As adults, it’s our responsibility to be aware of this and adjust accordingly.

    • Stop and recognize when you’re having big emotions. Can you handle your feelings appropriately in front of your child (speak calmly and in a soft tone, etc.)? If not, take a break.
    • Talk about your own positive, negative, and even neutral feelings. This can help your child learn to use words, rather than behaviors, for expression.
    • Talk through your problem-solving approaches for handling negative feelings. This could include taking deep breaths, singing a song, thinking of something you love, etc. Practice these approaches with your child when they need to calm down.

    What guidance would you give about letting toddlers work through their emotions by themselves vs. stepping in to help?

    Find the balance. Working through challenges together is the way kids will develop the skills needed to face similar situations in the future. It takes time and practice though. Provide validation of their feelings and support ways to express themselves appropriately. 

    As adults, we still sometimes have difficulty thinking logically when faced with challenging situations. It’s extremely difficult for a toddler, who hasn’t yet developed the ability to reason. Give them space to figure things out, but step in if behavior is dangerous to the child or others, or if you see they’re really struggling to handle it on their own.

    Be sure to process the event together once the situation is calm again. Help your child grow awareness of what happened, how they felt, and potential alternatives to their response. Talk about what worked and ways to adjust to plan for next time.

    Is there a certain age by which you typically see a noticeable ability in kids to regulate emotions?

    By the age of 8 or 9, kids should be able to engage more in emotional regulation. This includes the ability to identify emotions and their triggers, along with ways to manage their emotions with support. You should see a noticeable increase in their ability to do so as they approach age 8. 

    Are there certain emotional signs or behaviors that might indicate a young child could benefit from the help of a professional?

    Occasional outbursts by young kids are a normal part of cognitive development and maturation. Professional help may be needed if:

    • Outbursts are repeatedly dangerous to self and others
    • Behavior is impacting relationships and functioning in the home, at school and in the daily environment (grocery store, park, etc.)
    • You’re not seeing gradual improvement as they get older
    • Outbursts continue to be commonplace when they’re 8 or 9 years old

    If you have concerns, your child’s pediatrician can offer insight and help determine if additional support would be beneficial.

    Search ‘mental health’ on our blog for more articles from our experts at Virginia Treatment Center for Children.


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