Little girl smiles shyly while standing on a jungle gym

3 Ways to Help Toddlers Express Themselves

It’s very common for children under the age of 4 to have an imbalance in their emotions and words ratio. They have intense emotions, but they have not yet developed the cognitive ability to find and string words together into meaningful expressive phrases or sentences. This can further magnify the feelings of frustration toddlers often experience, and can even lead to tantrums or biting behavior.

 In order to lessen these feelings of frustration, it’s important for parents to help their toddler feel heard, seen and understood. Here are three ways parents can help their little ones express themselves through caring words.

  1. Reflect and Tag. Notice what your toddler is feeling or doing at every opportunity and reflect what you observe back to your child. One way to do this is by using words to “tag” your child’s emotion or experience so they feel understood and begin learning the words to associate with their feelings. Here are some examples:
    • “You would like another cracker. You feel HAPPY I am giving you another cracker.”
    • “You want to get out of the bathtub. You are ALL DONE taking a bath. You are ready to get out of the bathtub. Here we go! Let’s help you out of the bathtub.”
    • “You are SAD I am leaving. You want another hug? Oh, that feels GOOD. I love hugs.”
    • “You feel FRUSTRATED because you want that toy. You really want to play with that toy now. I understand. Let’s take a big breath together. Ah… That feels BETTER!”
  2. Play Along! Play is a child’s language. Actively watch your child’s play and “track” using the same technique above, but avoid evaluation and judgment. As you track, you can also observe themes in your child’s play that can give you an idea of what she is feeling and thinking about. Here are a few examples:
    • “It looks like you are cooking something delicious. You are getting dinner ready in your kitchen. You want me to taste it? I’m tasting it. Thank you for cooking for me!”
    • “You are feeding your baby. Now you are rocking the baby. You love your baby!”
    • “You are stacking those blocks on top of each other so tall. Oh! You knocked it down. Now you are building it back up again.”
  3. Be a Model. Little eyes are watching and little ears are listening. Allow your child to witness you using manners, making requests for what you need and want, and expressing your feelings. Here are some examples:
    • “I can’t find my keys. I wonder where they are. I am beginning to feel frustrated because I can’t find my keys.”
    • “Thank you for helping me clean up! I appreciate your help very much.”
    • “May I please have one of your crackers? Thank you for sharing with me.”

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