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Teaching Emotional Regulation: Helping Your Toddler Express Feelings

I never truly knew how to effectively express and communicate my feelings until I was an adult. I have always been one to shove my feelings as far down as they will go until I just can’t take it anymore and I break down on the bathroom floor for a good ten minutes. This isn’t the healthiest way of coping or expressing my feelings, and I recognize that. Emotional regulation is a process that I’m still actively working on and something that I strive to teach my son at a very early age.

Emotional regulation is a valuable skill that comes with years of practice. That being said, it is something that children are unable to do on their own until seven years of age, at the very earliest. In order to understand emotional regulation, we must have a basic understanding of child brain science. The brain is divided into four main sections: the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe, the occipital lobe, and the temporal lobe. The prefrontal cortex is part of the frontal lobe and houses the ability to perform executive functioning such as emotional regulation, reasoning, problem solving, and impulse control. That part of the brain doesn’t even begin to develop until a child reaches three and a half years of age. Up until that point, the child relies solely on their caregiver to do something called co-regulate. In effective co-regulation, the caregiver is a safe haven for emotions to be expressed and understood. The caregiver or parent is emotionally regulated for both themselves and their child. They are able to handle the big feelings of the child, name the feeling for the child, and assist the child in working through that feeling.

Although the prefrontal cortex begins to develop at 3.5 years old, it does not finish developing until the mid twenties. That means that from the time children are born until the time they reach adulthood, they need co-regulation in order to properly express and understand their emotions. This will look different for every age group, but if we begin this practice at an early age, we will be better prepared to guide our children through their feelings throughout their lives.

So how can we help our toddlers express their feelings? Start by modeling the behavior you want to see. Our children are sponges and they absorb everything from us whether it is good or bad. “Do as I say not as I do” is a phrase we can throw right out the window because it is just not realistic. If you get angry and throw your phone against the wall, you can expect your child to react violently to their own anger. In order to model the appropriate way to respond to feelings, you must first learn to identify your own. This is something that I walk my clients through during their time with me, and something that takes consistent practice. Once you’ve identified your feelings, you can then learn how to properly sit with and feel them. For example, if your child breaks a picture of your late grandmother and you are overcome with sadness and anger, you must first locate that feeling; in doing so, you can allow that feeling to exist within you. Instead of pushing down that feeling and immediately punishing your child, you can reflect on the sadness and anger you’re feeling, and in turn respond more appropriately to your child, who likely did not intend on breaking something so meaningful to you.

While learning and practicing the art of feeling, you can also begin to hold space for your child’s feelings. What does this look like exactly? Sometimes it looks like sitting quietly on the floor while your little one melts down. Sometimes it looks like holding them close during big feelings. Other times it might look like giving them space. Regardless of what that looks like for your family, get in the habit of naming their feelings to them, and letting them know it is okay to feel what they are feeling. Oftentimes children are shamed for screaming or crying, when all they need in those moments is to be seen, heard, and understood. By letting them know that you see, hear, and understand them, you are giving them the gift of visibility, which is all they want from their parents.

One final step I recommend implementing is talking about feelings during times of mutual regulation. In other words, when your child is happy and playing, bring out a book that illustrates feelings and describe each one and what it might feel like. For instance, point to a character in a book who’s ice cream fell onto the ground. Say something like “that little girl looks so sad. She has tears in her eyes and she is frowning. I wonder why she is so sad?” If your child is older, allow them to answer; otherwise, say “I wonder if it’s because her ice cream fell down” and then continue on to talk about what she can do to express her sadness, like crying for a bit or hugging her mom. If we can illustrate feelings to our kids, they will better understand their own when they inevitably have them.

To put it plainly- toddlers have BIG feelings and they show up in BIG ways. Co-regulating with our children is the best and only way to develop their brains to a point that they will be able to regulate themselves, or self-soothe. It’s important to practice our own emotional regulation, provide a safe space for our children to express their feelings, and practice naming emotions outside of big feeling moments. If you have questions, please feel free to leave them below. If you want help expressing and communicating your own emotions, I’d love to chat with you. Click here to book a free 30-min call with me so we can discuss how I can help you.

Thanks for reading,


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