Your toddler is practicing the cognitive equivalent of eating pudding with a pair of chopsticks. Just listen: The stuff they want in the world (toys, love … more toys) is the pudding. Their inability to express themselves about wanting these things is the equivalent of the chopsticks. And that metaphorical inability to scoop that chocolate with 2 sticks leads to strong emotions — which leads to screaming, yelling, kicking, and occasional wall-bouncing.
Calm that frustration with a little trick called emotional literacy. It’s how you can get them to decode their feelings so you can understand and help. Even if they just need a hand opening that Snack Pack.
The Case For Emotional Literacy
As a dad, you might be a little reluctant about squishy things like “emotions” and “feelings,” but your kid totally isn’t. So you’re going to have to suck it up and get in touch with those things, man.
The fact is, studies have shown when kids have decent emotional literacy, they are less likely to be anxious and aggressive. They develop what’s called prosocial behavior — basically social problem solving. Prosocial behavior is also linked to scholastic achievement and better mental health. In fact, it may even keep them out of jail. (How you got by is anyone’s guess.)
Promoting Emotional Literacy
There are several ways you can help your kid get in touch with their ever-shifting, volatile, pudding-induced emotional state.
You don’t want to deny your kid their feelings. That sends the message that what they’re feeling is somehow not okay. So telling them not to feel sad or angry for whatever reason isn’t the best idea. Even if you have the best intentions in the world — like having a moment of goddam peace and quiet.
Make sure you kid knows what to call that feeling. It will help them navigate their rocky emotional sea. It’ll also eventually help them explain to you what’s going on, which will help you find a solution. See? Everyone wins.
The key is to keep the emotional conversation going. When they’re freaking out because little so-and-so took their toy, help them name it: “Oh, man! Looks like you’re pissed because Kyle was being a dick.” But, without using the word dick.
Talk About Your Feelings
Even if your partner has a lock on talking about emotions, you still need to pitch in. Strong men also cry, Mr. Lebowski … strong men also cry.
Talking about how you’re feeling essentially allows your kid to recognize emotions in others. All the better if they hear you say you’re upset while not laying on the floor and kicking your legs. It shows them it can be done. So go ahead and tell them if you, too, are upset that Kyle was being a dick. (Stop being a dick, Kyle!)
Kids love games about as much as you love playing craps, which is a lot (when you’re winning). So building your kid’s emotional literacy can often be as easy as sitting down and doing what you already do, with just a couple of tweaks.
- Try some emotional role playing with stuffed animals. Act out a scenario lousy with feelings. Name of those stuffed animals Kyle.
- Do some mime work: You make a face with feelings (be it mad, sad, happy, cautiously ambivalent) and have your kid name them.
- Remix If You’re Happy And You Know It to include other emotions and ways to cope. Maybe not, “If you’re depressed, and you know it, drink a Scotch.” Though feel free to start the song by shouting loudly: “Reeeeeeeeemiiiiiiiiiiiix!”
When your toddler wants to lash out, give them some better ways to deal with their emotions. Stomping feet is a great way to avoid hitting. Taking a deep breath is a great way to calm down when crying. Watching Falling Down is a great way to cope with feelings of hopelessness at your job.
Keep in mind that even doing one of these on the regular is a good way to help your kid find their emotional center. It also may be a great way to find yours, as well. Now, who wants pudding?