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Our top tips for managing our little ones emotions

Genevieve Muir

Genevieve Muir

Obstetric Social Worker and Parent Educator. Working at the Mater hospital in Sydney and also a mother to four beautiful boys Genevieve is passionate about helping families in Sydney and beyond adapt to the modern parenting world and all its challenges and not only survive but thrive.
Created on Feb 09, 2024 · 6 mins read

There is no doubt about it, parenting small humans is all about emotions. From the minute your newborn is placed on your chest it’s a steep learning curve as we adjust to parenting. Emotions are high as we adjust, and our baby does too. We navigate crying, long nights, and the first months can feel like a blur. 


Just as the dust settles and things feel like there is a bit of a rhythm: Your child becomes a toddler.

This is an exciting time, including big moments like potty training, increasing independence as your child learns the power in the word ‘no’, and an explosion of language. It can also come with some new feelings and emotions that can feel big for both your toddler and for you. Suddenly it can feel like just by peeling a banana the wrong way you’ve ruined your toddler’s day.

When your child begins to express their big feelings, the experience for you can be overwhelming, and can have parents wondering ‘is this normal?’ and ‘what can I do to help my child with these big feelings?’

Is it normal for toddlers to have strong emotions?


Let’s get straight to the good news: 

Not only are these big feelings normal, but they are also essential for development. The process of feeling big emotions on repeat gives the brain a chance to practice managing emotions and this builds resilience over time. This means that when your child is having lots of meltdowns, they are getting lots of practice at building resilience. 

How we go in these moments is a lot more about us than our child. As it turns out, the biggest job we have in these moments when our child is learning to express their big feelings – is to learn to manage the feelings in ourselves. 

Why do toddlers have such big feelings?


Put simply, their brains are still developing and the pre-frontal cortex that helps them be reasonable, rational and regulated is not fully developed until well into your child’s mid 20’s. (Yep, you heard right!) While a toddler may be developing many new skills and increasingly becoming more independent, their ability to manage all their big feelings is a long way off being fully developed. 

Tantrums and meltdowns are normal and healthy. Tantrums and meltdowns are not a choice our children make, but a state of dysregulation that is beyond the control of our kids. 

Essentially when these big feelings build up children lack key skills manage this in a way that looks resilient. When it comes to the parts of the brain that are still developing that contribute to meltdowns or hitting or big outbursts, here are just a few:

  • Impulse control
  • Problem solving
  • Delaying gratification
  • Negotiating
  • Communicating wishes and needs to adults
  • Knowing what’s appropriate or expected in the situation
  • Self-soothing

One of the big goals you may have for your child is that they will one day be resilient when it comes to disappointments and setbacks. Ironically the building of resilience in a child can look very, very ‘un-resilient’. The way the human brain builds resilience is through practice. It can’t be taught; it needs to be experienced. 

So, in fact a toddler who is expressing lots and lots of big emotions, with the support of a loving caregiver is practicing how to regulate every single time they lose it! Every time the emotions fire up, and they can let the feelings out, they get to experience and learn the skills and process of regulating emotion though the co-regulation process.

This means that children don’t have the capacity to soothe and feel settled from within and need to seek this externally through behaviour. A child learns to regulate through lots of practice with a loving caregiver who models the ability to regulate for the child over and over via a safe emotional connection.

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The importance of catching some emotions early


Evidence shows that children will get to the point of a ‘meltdown’ when they can no longer regulate through another thing. More specifically they often show up to 10 mini or micro emotions before they ‘meltdown’. Evidence shows that when we are able to catch and welcome around 30% of these lower level emotions, our kids are less likely to melt down, or the meltdown may be less intense. 

Because their brains are still growing all things feel big to a toddler, their tower falling over, the coloured cup you have them, or feeling frustrated that we need to help them do something at a time when they want independence. All of these things essentially push the dial up on the meltdown meter and can have our child close to the edge. 

Then one more thing happens like we peel the banana when they want to and our child is melting down. That’s when they engage in a “micro emotion” which is often brief, and feels involuntary to them.

Tips for managing your child's emotions


1. Welcome their emotions

Here is what we might say to welcome a micro emotion. Just say our child says “I am NOT getting in the bath tonight”:

We might resist the urge to fix, solve, distract or teach by saying: 

  • “Oh but you LOVE the bath”
  • “Just get in the bath and I’ll let you watch TV”
  • “You will do what I say or there will be consequences”

And instead we might come close to our child, view this as a moment for connection and empathy and say: “Hmmmm, you are really not feeling it about the bath huh?….. I get it. Sometimes I don’t want to do things too. You do need to wash but I am wondering what we can do to make bath time more fun?”

2. Use playfulness to explore 

This is where I would use playfulness. 

The LEGO® DUPLO® Big Feelings and Emotions set is perfect for this. We can mirror the emotion our child is struggling with by playing with the different expressions the characters can have and storytelling around those feelings. You can mix and match the buildable characters’ clothes, hair, and emotions so your child can express themselves and explore. It also gives an opportunity to regulate by name their emotions. By using a visual in the LEGO DUPLO minifigure, we also help them to process it. Bonus points for being playful and silly at this point too. 

3. Connect with them

When we connect with them in this feeling and explore it with them through roleplay, it helps your child to know that they can come to you when they are both happy and sad. This also supports regulation and makes them less likely to have that dial move up to the red zone where they meltdown. 

There is still space for distraction, and teaching at other times. But if we can just sit in feelings 30% of the time, this not only increases cooperation and listening from your child in the short term, it does something much bigger. It creates a secure attachment and it sets up a relationship where longer term your child knows they can come to you with their feelings. 

The good news is we only need to do this some of the time to make a real difference for our kids. This listening, empathy and connection goes a long way towards creating a secure relationship that our child knows they can lean into. 

 

LEGO, LEGO DUPLO and the Minifigure are trademarks of The LEGO Group. ©2024 The LEGO Group.

This is a paid partnership between Kiindred and the LEGO® DUPLO® Brand.

 


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