At about eighteen months of age, it is important to help toddlers begin to understand their feelings and learn how to express them in socially appropriate ways. Just as we point and offer names for objects as toddlers begin to speak, it is also essential to help them understand their four basic feelings: glad, sad, mad and scared. Helping your young children understand their feelings will help them understand themselves.
Parents should not try to stop their children from expressing their feelings, but help them learn ways to get feelings out without hurting themselves or anyone else. It is common for parents to tell children they are being “good” when they are happy, and “bad” when they are mad, sad or even scared. Though some feelings are certainly more pleasant than others, all feelings are important and none of them are bad. Behavior can be unacceptable, but feelings are just indicators of how we experience the world.
Feelings direct us toward those life experiences that are right for us and away from those we should avoid. Our feelings tell us what brings us pleasure and pain, whom we can trust, what feels safe, and what should be avoided because it appears dangerous. Without the guidance of this internal “emotional GPS,” we can lose track of what we are feeling and lose connection with which life paths and relationships that are best for us.
Example of How to Validate Feelings
Maya is having a hard day and unable to cope with one more disappointment. She falls to the floor sobbing and kicking her feet into the carpet. Maya’s Mom calmly sits near her toddler and reassures her it is good that she is getting her mad out without hurting anyone or anything. Having her feelings validated in this way helps Maya unstress, recover more quickly, and retreat to her mom’s lap for some comfort and reassurance. Rather than being punished for having a “temper tantrum”, Maya’s Mom helped Maya express her anger safely all the way through to recovery.
Devon is very scared of bugs. His Dad says, “I know those bugs are really scaring you.” He adds, “I wonder if those bugs are scared of us, too, since we’re so much bigger.” He then shares, “I remember being scared of bugs, too, when I was a little boy, but one day they didn’t seem so scary anymore. I bet that will happen for you too.”