There are all kinds of reasons why toddlers experience such big feelings. For one thing, they don’t have the coping mechanisms and life experience to put feelings into perspective – “It’s just a ball” may make sense to a savvy adult, but to a toddler, that ball could mean absolutely everything at that moment!
For another thing, toddlers are starting to experience a sense of independence. This can be scary for them. Their urges may be strong to do things on their own, but they are afraid to try or feel insecure about going ahead with something. Toddlers feel the need to have Mom and Dad nearby, but they want to explore everything on their own at the same time.
Yet another reason why toddlers emote on such a grand scale is that they have trouble communicating effectively. They may have needs and wants that they can’t express, and adults’ puzzlement sends them over the edge in frustration.
So how do you handle all these big feelings? Now that you know a little bit about why toddlers have these emotions, here are some tips that may help.
Identify the Cause
It can make all the difference in the world if you can identify the underlying cause of the big feelings. It may be physical, such as tiredness or hunger (experienced parents can tell it’s time for lunch without a clock by observing their toddler’s grumpy behavior!). Try to anticipate the need so that you can prevent emotions from running away with your toddler.
When a Meltdown Does Happen…
Most sources will tell you to remain calm. But it might help to be proactive, too – let your toddler know you’re there for him, but that a tantrum is not acceptable behavior. Tell him you understand his big feelings and that you will help him to handle them, and that you will try to understand him better. Give the feelings names so that he feels less overwhelmed by them.
If the tantrum was set off because your toddler wanted something (such as a toy, not a legitimate need), then experts recommend that you do not reward the tantrum by giving your toddler the item.
As a parent, you may experience frustration with your toddler’s big feelings, too. It’s a good idea to model the right response to big feelings so your toddler begins to learn the right way to deal with emotions. You can tell your toddler, “I feel so angry and frustrated now! I am going to punch a pillow/draw a picture/do an angry dance.” Then do it – it might help you feel better as well!