Life is stressful for toddlers, and helping toddlers cope with big emotions can feel equally as stressful. As a parent you’ve probably been in a situation or two when your toddler started to throw a tantrum. To let all the emotions burst out over the most illogical thing. Maybe it happened at a grocery store or when going to daycare or even at home in the evening time.
I’ve been in that situation more times than I wished. My son was not always an easy-going child and emotional tantrums seem to surface at the most inopportune times. Then I started to use one simple technique and things started to change.
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I started to parent using emotion, rather than logic. I tapped into the right side of his brain—the emotional side—and things got dramatically better. His tantrums became shorter. His outbursts less frequent. And overall life a lot happier.
The biggest discovery?
What kids often need, especially when they experience strong emotions, is to feel understood and validated. They want to know you understand what they are screaming about. They want to know that you get it.
They also want you to help them make sense of what is happening. To put things in order and to understand these big and scary right brain feelings so they can cope more effectively.
How do you help toddlers make sense of things?
First, you have to learn the inner-workings of the toddler brain.
Very young children (ages 0-3) are right-brain dominant. This means they are emotionally driven, focusing on the emotions and experiences of relationships. They haven’t mastered the ability to use logic and words to express their feelings, and they live their lives completely in the moment. This is why toddlers cry over illogical things even when you logically explain it. They can’t access that logical left-side of their brain yet.
What triggers those powerful right brain emotions?
When parenting a toddler just about anything can feel stressful and trigger right brain emotions. I wish it were simpler. Not being able to get a piece of candy at the grocery store, having a toy taken away, spilling milk—only you know your toddler’s triggers best.
There are, however, several bigger situations that can feel very stressful for toddlers:
Going to daycare
Moving to a new home
The birth of a new sibling
Mom or dad going back to work
How to parent through the right brain?
Here are 7 techniques that you can use to access the right brain of your toddler, quell those emotional feelings, and help your toddler feel understood.
#1 Connect and redirect:
When your child is upset, connect to the right side of the brain. Then once your toddler is more in control and receptive, bring in the left-brain lessons, limits and consequences.
Example: Mirror feelings and use non-verbals like hugs and empathetic facial expressions.
- “You’re frustrated, aren’t you?”
- “You’re really mad that you can’t ______ right now, aren’t you?”
Then once you’ve connected, set the boundary.
- “Biting hurts. Please be gentle.”
- “We can go to the park in a little bit. But first, can you help mommy with ______?”
When big, right-brain emotions are raging out of control, help your child tell the story about what’s upsetting him. This will help him use the left brain to make sense of his experience and feel more control. Research shows that merely assigning a name or label to what we feel literally calms down the activity of the emotional circuitry in the right hemisphere.
Example: Make it a habit to name and acknowledge feelings.
- “You look so sad. That really hurt, didn’t it?”
With young toddlers you can help them narrate the story. Use your words to help retell a stressful event that happened that day.
- “We went to the grocery store and you got really upset. You really wanted mommy to buy that toy.”
- “You went to daycare and were really sad that mommy left. But then mommy came back. Mommy will always come back for you.”
#3 Engage, don’t enrage:
Engage your child’s brain by asking him to plan and choose. When possible avoid power struggles, and save the word ‘no’ for when you really need it.
Example: If you see your toddler hitting with a stick, rather than forbidding him to do that—wait. Engage him and tell him what you would like him to do instead.
- “Can you take the stick outside? What could you do with the stick in the yard?”
#4 Offer choices:
Provide lots of opportunities to help toddlers feel control. Find ways to allow toddlers to make decisions for themselves
Example: Offer choices within reason.
- “Do you want to wear your red or blue shirt today? Would you like milk or water to drink?”
#5 Move it or lose it:
A powerful way to help toddlers gain emotional balance is to have him move his body. Roughhousing with kids offers amazing benefits. It helps decrease stress, offers physical connection, nurtures resiliency just to name a few.
Example: Roughhouse with him. Play follow the leader. Race him to the bedroom and back. Getting toddlers to move releases stress and improves emotional coping.
#6 Play, pause and rewind:
After an upsetting event, toddler benefit from pausing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding through a story. This helps toddlers maintain control over how they view the story.
Example: When your child wants to tell (and retell) stories. Allow the toddler to help you tell the story. Even if you feel annoyed at having to go over the story again and again, this storytelling helps toddlers understand, process, and heal from stressful events.
Games are an excellent way to help a toddler build self-control and social-emotional skills:
#7 Let the emotions roll by:
Remind kids that emotions come and go. Frustration and fear are temporary. When young children feel sad or angry, they have a hard time understanding they won’t always feel that way.
Example: Help your toddler say, “I feel sad right now, but I know I’ll be happy later.”
Wrapping it up.
What kids often need, especially when they experience strong emotions, is to have someone help them use their left brain to make sense of what’s going on. To put things in order and to make these big and scary right brain feelings so they can deal with them effectively. It’s worked wonders in our home, and I hope that it can help you too.
If you are interested in learning more about these techniques and so much more I highly recommend the book The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel. It’s pack with tons of great information for parenting toddlers all the way to school-aged children!
Print this free toddler listening checklist.
This post comes with a free printable checklist to help with toddler listening. I always have the hardest time remembering these phrases. This printable simplifies it!
Here is a sneak preview…
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- Download the checklist. You’ll get the printable, plus join 37,000+ parents who receive my weekly parenting tips and ideas!
- Print. Any paper will do the trick, but card stock would be ideal.
- Place it on your refrigerator. Check things off as you go and don’t forget a thing!
Want more on toddlers?
- For All the Moms of Toddlers
- Toddler Night Waking: 4 Steps to Help You Deal
- 10 Empowering Ways to Improve Toddler Listening
- 2 Year Old Not Listening? Try This Remarkable Tip
- How to Stop a Whining Child – Immediately
What’s your best tip to help toddlers cope with BIG emotions? Let’s chat in the comments!
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The Whole Brain Child Approach is definitely a winner! I love that the authors (Dr. Tina Bryson and Dr Dan Siegel) have actually done the brain scan research to support this method. It’s not just a touchy-feely, feel good idea- it’s backed by science AND makes tons of sense! (It works great with spouses and disappointed friends, too!)
It’s encouraging to hear how many people really love this book. I think it offers some great strategies for parents, and like you said, these strategies work incredibly well with friends and spouses as well. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with this book!
Man, having toddlers is no joke. Your tips (as usual) are spot on, and actually they remind me of one of my all time favorite parenting books, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen (and Listen So Kids Will Talk). Have you ever read that? I know you’d love it.
I’m a big fan of mirroring, validating your kids’ feelings. That helps a lot. The funny thing is that my husband and I find ourselves doing it for each other and we’re on to each other’s tricks! It doesn’t work quite as well on grownups. You have to work harder to be authentic– but it’s still nice!
Sadly toddlers are not a joke. It would be a lot funnier if it were. I need to read that book…how to talk so your kids will listen. I have a huge stack that I want to read. Never enough time. Never enough. I’ve had a few people tell me they use this on adults as well. Ha. I think they are just great tips for communication in general.
Thanks for stopping by!
I am familiar with technique number 2, but I’ve never heard someone reference it as storytelling. I like that! I think it has the potential for making it easier to remember in the moment with a child.
Natasha @ anxious toddlers
This is a well written and helpful article on how to help a toddler handle their emotions!!
Hi, we just made a nearly 1,000 mile move out of state and my nearly 3 yr old is having a rough time dealing with missing his family (mostly gma) & where we lived. He keeps telling me he want to go home. I’m having a hard time not feeling guilty about it.