Toddlers struggle with the same feelings as the rest of us: anger, sadness, jealousy, the whole cast of Inside Out. But they don’t yet have the language skills to describe them. They also lack the emotional maturity to know that everybody has a bad day sometimes and that when they become unhinged it affects everyone around them. They haven’t learned how to punch a pillow to blow off steam or bite their lip in the interest of social harmony.
Trouble managing all this turbulence—which is perfectly, developmentally normal—becomes the fuel for many of those not-so-fun toddler behaviors, like tantrums, biting, hitting, and whining.
And sometimes worse: Child development specialists know that kids who show lots of behavior problems early are five times more likely to lack readiness skills when it’s time to start kindergarten. (Forget the fixation with ABCs; it’s language, play, and social-emotional skills—taking turns, waiting patiently, being able to delay gratification—that prime a pre-K kid for school and life success.)
But there’s an easy way to shore up your turbulent toddler now, specialists say, that sets him or her up for success later:
Talk about emotions!
No, that doesn’t mean you have to play shrink. It simply means having conversations about feelings that come up in daily life. In fact, you’re probably already doing some of this in your everyday interactions with your child.
Here’s one great tactic, called “emotion bridging,” which new Michigan State University research, led by Holly Brophy-Herb, a professor of child development, has showed to be effective. For the study, published in the September 2015 Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, mothers looked with their toddlers at a wordless picture book about a girl who lost and found a pet. The researchers counted how often the moms talked up emotions. When they followed up seven months later, they found fewer behavior problems in the children who initially had the most problems but whose moms used emotional bridging.
Emotional bridging is as simple as this:
Label emotions for your child: “She’s sad.”
Put emotions into a context: “She’s sad because she lost her dog.”
Explain the behaviors that show that emotion: “She looks sad. She’s crying.”
Tie the emotion back to the child’s life: “You were sad when you couldn’t find your blankie.”
You can do it anywhere!
Even small amounts of emotional bridging were shown to have a positive impact on kids in the MSU study. You can find opportunities for “emotion talk” all through the day:
At story time: As in the study, children’s books make a great springboard for this because they cover such a huge range of feelings. You don’t have to stick to the words on the page. Pause to look at the illustrations and point out things like, “Oh my, that turtle looks so disappointed to lose the race.”
Some books even explicitly teach toddlers about feelings, like the new I’m Grumpy and I’m Sunny board books in the My First Comics series.
At the grocery store: While standing in a long line as your toddler grows antsy, you could say, “It’s hard to be patient, isn’t it! I can tell you feel impatient by how wiggly your are!”
In the car: “When I sing it makes me feel happy.”
When you feel blue yourself: Research shows that kids learn empathy when parents model and describe their own emotions, rather than hiding them: “I’m just sad because Grandma is feeling sick.”
The payoff: Better behavior and social smarts.
These simple kinds of emotion talk help toddlers understand what emotions are (a tougher concept, after all, than action words and nouns) and helps them get better at interpreting and managing situations where feelings run high. At age 2 or 3, it can feel like a big empowering Ah-ha to gain a word that explains a feeling like mad or sad (and the needs and wishes that go with it). Other research has shown that when parents have conversations about emotions by the time their child is 3, he or she is better able to understand and identify with another person’s emotions at age 6—the seeds of empathy.
Over time, say the MSU researchers, these new skills help kids manage their emotional impulses, cope with stress, and deal with their peers and grownups in more socially appropriate ways. Translation: It won’t happen overnight, but you’ll start to see fewer outbursts and meltdowns, more self-control, more kindness—and, before you know it, a bright and better-adjusted, ready-for-the-world kindergartner.