As parents (or caregivers), we play a crucial role in nurturing our toddler’s emotional development. Toddlers are learning new things every single day, including all kinds of emotions. It’s our job to make sure they understand these feelings and know what to do with them. This can seem like a huge responsibility, and it is, but it doesn’t have to be scary! In this post, we’ll discuss 10 simple daily practices that you can use to nurture toddler emotional development.
1. Create a Safe and Secure Environment
First and foremost, we want to create a safe and secure environment for our toddlers. I mean this physically and emotionally. When children feel safe they’re more likely to explore emotions and express themselves. Imagine feeling angry for the very first time! That would be honestly pretty scary. And of course if you were feeling this for the first time you’d have no idea what to do (hence why toddlers typically hit, throw things, or throw themselves to the floor). While we want to hold boundaries and teach appropriate ways of managing these big feelings, we also want to be sure they know they’re allowed to feel this way and we will help them through it.
2. Validate and Label Emotions
On that note, one way we can help them through these big feelings is by validating and labeling their emotions. Labeling emotions for them helps them to better understand what they’re feeling. For example, if your toddler is angry and throws his toys you can say, “you seem like you’re feeling angry,” or “I can see that you’re mad right now.” You say this calmly because you’re just staying a fact. You’re not judging them or punishing them for feeling angry. Remember, not all behaviors are okay (i.e. we want to teach them its not okay to throw toys) but all feelings are okay.
3. Be Emotionally Responsive
This one can sometimes be easier said than done. We certainly don’t always have time and patience to respond to all of our little ones’ emotions. But when we can, we should. Being emotionally responsive means actively listening and attuning to your toddler’s feelings. When your child is upset or excited, show empathy and respond with sensitivity. Offer comfort and support during times of distress, allowing them to feel understood and cared for. Being emotionally responsive helps build a secure attachment. This means that even when things are tough and stressful, they’re generally easier than they would be without such attachment.
4. Encourage Emotional Expression Play
Play is a natural outlet for emotional expression in toddlers. It’s how little kids communicate and learn about the world around them. Encourage imaginative play and provide toys that facilitate emotional exploration, such as dolls or stuffed animals. You don’t need to dictate their play, but just providing them with toys to express and explore new emotions helps them learn what they have observed and felt.
5. Teach Emotional Vocabulary
Be sure to include emotional vocabulary in your every day life. As you’re reading books, watching TV, or engaging with others you can point out different feelings. For example, when you’re reading a book together at bedtime you can pause and say “that boy looks like he’s feeling sad/mad/happy” etc. Having a rich emotional vocabulary enables toddlers to communicate their feelings more effectively, reducing emotional outbursts. It’s a lot easier to say that you’re feeling frustrated when you know what the word “frustrated” means!
6. Model Healthy Emotional Expression
You’ve probably heard it before but children, especially toddlers are sponges. They observe everything – even when we think they aren’t. So when possible, try to demonstrate healthy emotional expression. This doesn’t mean you have to be happy and smiling all the time. In fact, the complete opposite. You can demonstrate healthy ways to manage stress, anger, frustration, and so on. This helps to provide real life examples of how we feel and manage our emotions.
7. Encourage Social Interactions
Positive social interactions are crucial for a toddler’s emotional development. This can be done at daycare, or at home with siblings or friends. You can arrange playdates or attend parent-child classes to provide opportunities for socializing. Encourage taking turns and empathy during playtime. Social interactions teach toddlers valuable social skills and help them understand the emotions of others. Remember that a lot of behaviors that are not socially acceptable for adults (grabbing, hitting, yelling, throwing) are developmentally appropriate for kids. Helping them work through these moments in a positive way helps toddlers learn how to handle situations. Remember, not all behaviors are allowed, but all feelings are allowed. Social interactions are a great place to practice, but don’t expect your toddler to be an expert!
8. Practice Emotion Regulation Techniques
Toddlers often don’t know what to do with their big feelings, which is why they often respond physically. Teaching and modeling healthy emotion regulation techniques is a great way to help them learn how to manage these big emotions. We can teach them things like deep breathing, counting to ten, and walking away when frustrated. Then, we can be sure to model this when we are feeling upset.
9. Set and Hold Boundaries
A lot of people confuse gentle parenting with permissive parenting. Children absolutely need rules, routines and boundaries. It’s within their nature to test boundaries, and it actually helps them to feel safe and secure when we hold the boundaries we set. Sure, in the moment they might be happy when we let them have candy for dinner or cave and get them the toy at the store they keep asking for, but in the long run, kids are typically better able to handle emotions when they know what to expect. They also tend to realize early on that continuing to argue or yell does not work to get their way, so they figure out other, more adaptive ways of managing their frustration.
10. Seek Professional Help if Needed
Keep in mind that sometimes kids need extra help – and that’s okay! Whether it’s because of a stressful life event or a more chronic concern, if it seems like your toddler is struggling, reach out for help. The earlier kids learn how to manage the “tough stuff” the better. If you think you or your kiddo need support, ask your child’s pediatrician, trusted friends/ family, or teachers for recommendations.
Nurturing your toddler’s emotional development is a journey filled with love, patience, and understanding. By creating a safe and secure environment, validating their emotions, and modeling healthy emotional expression, you can lay the foundation for emotional intelligence and resilience. Encourage self-expression through play, teach emotional vocabulary, and provide opportunities for positive social interactions. Embrace your role as an emotionally responsive parent, offering support and encouragement as your child navigates the complexities of emotions. Together, these ten essential parenting tips will help your toddler thrive emotionally, setting them on a path to healthy emotional development for years to come.
What are some other ways you practice nurturing your toddler’s emotional development?