Toddlers have intense feelings, here is how you can help!
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
A New Way to Talk About Feelings.
If you are anything like me, you probably grew up hearing our parents tell you things like, "Suck it up buttercup" or "There's no crying in baseball" which taught us to keep our feelings to ourselves or ignore them.
The problem with that is, when you bottle up feelings for too long, they are bound to erupt at the least opportune moment. I don't want to yell at my kids, my partner, or some random person in the supermarket checkout. But that is what happens when we are out of touch with our feelings.
My therapist had me read the book "Non-Violent Communication" and in one of the early chapters it talks about how out of touch most people are with their feelings. On one hand, it made me feel better to know that I wasn't alone, but on the other hand, it is unfortunate the lack of understanding that most people have of their own feelings.
Feelings are an integral part of who we are as human beings, and quite often we struggle with how to express them.
As parents, we can teach our kids about their feelings in a more positive manner than what we were taught in the past by the older generations.
Parents are Role Models
When it comes to coping with feelings, our actions speak louder than words. Kids are likely to cope with their feelings in the same ways that they see us coping with ours.
If we model a lack of emotional awareness and emotional self-regulation, we teach our kids the same things that we were taught. In order to learn to be less reactive with our emotions, we have to first learn to understand them, and accept them. When we are taught at a young age that some emotions are negative and to be avoided, we end up turning all of our "bad" feelings inward to ourselves in the form of negative self talk.
It's important to remember that there are no good or bad feelings, only good and bad ways of acting out those feelings.
Learning Adult Coping Strategies
We hear all these buzz words now a days like "Emotional Intelligence" and "Social-Emotional Learning" but I think many of us gloss over the importance of these ideas without ever really understanding them.
There are many resources that can help us, as parents, learn to cope with our emotions in positive ways. We all have bad days sometimes, whether we are stresses about work and money, or things around the house with our kids.
I am not saying we will never be upset with our kids, I am saying that how we handle it matters.
I perpetually struggle with getting my toddler into bed at night. She will refuse to put her pajamas on, refuse to brush her teeth, refuse to pick out her story book, then refuse to get into bed. On one of the nights when it got really bad, we ended up in a screaming fight, followed by both of us laying on the bathroom floor and crying. Not one of my finest moments as a mother.
Talking to my therapist about that incident, we tried to unpack why I was so upset with the bedtime routine. Basically, it is because of being chronically tired to the point that I am just losing it when bedtime takes any longer than necessary.
We have tried a lot of strategies to make things go more smoothly, but the biggest change I have made is to my own attitude. I have started getting her routine started earlier, knowing it might take a while. Instead of being angry, I have made a gradual shift to being more patient.
For me, patience starts with having empathy. I visualize my daughter's little mind, and what her thoughts and feelings must be. I empathize with her tiredness, and her feelings of lack of control. I slow down and give her space to have her feelings. With little ones, even a few moments of breathing and waiting can give them the space they need to regulate their own feelings.
When I am not yelling and crying as the mom, my daughter is also less apt to start yelling and crying. Kids really do mirror us.
I think too often we get angry with our kids for being upset about something, for having tantrums, and we actually make things worse. I have started by sitting up close to mine, and asking, "What do you need?" It's important to understand why our kiddo's feel like they do, in order to help them manage their feelings in healthier ways.
The Conversation With Kids
Since I have struggled with my own feelings as much as my children's, I have made a point to seek out different kinds of teaching tools that I can use to start the conversation about feelings.
I am a big fan of books, so I found several books about feelings to read to my toddler (pictured above), and we read them as part of our bedtime story rotation. This helps to normalize feelings as a topic that they are comfortable with in a general sense.
We also have adopted the "feelings faces" which is a chart with pictures of different types of feelings. These are available with generic emoji looking faces, or faces of other kids. I have my daughter identify the feeling of each face.
It is important to have regular conversations with kids about feelings, when you aren't in the heat of an argument. You can embed this in your daily interactions pretty easily. Just like you can point out colors of objects in your home, you can observe the feelings that you are your child are experiencing. When it becomes just an observation without a judgement attached, the conversation flows more easily.
Our family is also pretty big on movies, so we can use the feelings of movie characters as teaching tools too.
In one of our favorite movies, Home, they talk about being sad-mad. Where sometimes, you will feel sad and angry all at once and start to act out feelings in a mean way with hitting and yelling. The two main characters start out at odds, but have some deep conversations about feelings and eventually come to be friends, and to grow individually as well. (If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend. It's about aliens invading earth and what happens.)
This is just one example out of many. For me it helps to have some context to talk about what to do when you feel a certain way. I like to point out that just because you are mad, you don't have to do something mean. Also, asking why book or movie characters felt a certain way helps to teach kids about empathy. That way, they aren't just thinking about their own feelings, but the feelings of others as well.
I will also give a lot of personal examples too, sometimes of when I acted in a way that wasn't very good. Like if my daughter gets mad, hits something and hurts herself. I have told her that once I got mad, kicked a metal filing cabinet, and cut up my leg. It helps to understand why a certain behavior as a result of your emotions might end badly. Also, when we humanize ourselves as parents, instead of claiming to be perfect and all-knowing, it helps kids to listen better I have found.
For some more tips to try, check out this video.
Let me know in the comments what other ways you use to talk to your kids about feelings!
For more about ways to talk to your kids positively, and understand the Attachment Parenting style, check out these other posts!
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