The Not-So-Terrible Twos: Supporting Toddlers’ Big Emotions

For little people that play the day away and take nice long naps, toddlers do have it a little rough. They are not babies anymore, and their social-emotional skills are forming at an unbelievable rate. Each day, they understand a bit more of the world around them. At the same time, they are still little enough to not have control of what happens around them (and not know how to control the emotions happening within them just yet, either).


It is understandable that this age is commonly referred to as “the terrible twos” when you think of all the crying, yelling, and just the big emotions in general.


However, when you consider all the changes a toddler is experiencing, it may not be so terrible after all.


The Science Behind Toddlers’ Big Emotions

The CDC says it best: “Toddlers will experience huge thinking, learning, social, and emotional changes that will help them explore their world and make sense of it.”


Some concrete changes that take place during the toddler years include:


  • Awareness of the toddler’s self as an individual
  • A desire for independence
  • A deeper emotional experience, including feelings of empathy, fear, embarrassment, guilt, envy, frustration, and more
  • The start of self-regulation skills (though support is needed to bring these full-circle)

How You Can Help

Being two will always be tough. However, as parents, there are a few things we can do to make this transitional time easier for our little ones:


Stay Calm in the Moment


We’re all human, and honestly, it’s tough to stay calm when our kids are screaming and crying about something that seems so minor to us. However, modeling a calm reaction is one of the best ways to both support and teach our child through their big emotions.


When they see us calmly acknowledge their feelings and help them through their difficulty, they are seeing a firsthand example of the exact skill we want them to learn.


Teach Emotions to Your Toddler


As mentioned above, toddlerhood is the age where children start to feel emotions they’ve never experienced before. They know all about being happy and sad, but as adults, we know emotions extend much further than these two extremes,


New feelings for toddlers can include guilt, embarrassment, fear, empathy, and more.


One of the biggest new emotions is frustration. To give a toddler a word and understanding for this feeling is to give them a solution to probably half the challenges they face in a day.


It is abstract, but it can be quite simple to teach.


Try saying, “I see you’re frustrated because your shoe fell off your foot and you had to stop playing so mommy could fix it.”


Then, calmly voice a solution to the frustration: “Let’s tie a double-knot in your shoelaces this time so we don’t need to feel this same frustration again.”


Our kids are little sponges, and as you continue to voice emotions as they feel them, they’ll gain a new understanding of how they feel as well as a way to express themselves when needed.


If you’re wanting to go further in emotional education, reading books on emotions and practicing emotion faces in the mirror (or with each other) are great tools, too.



Provide Opportunities to Practice New Emotions


Understanding toddlers’ big emotions is a huge step, but you can go further to help your child understand these feelings. It’s often helpful to give your child space to practice the new feelings they’re experiencing.


One great way to do this is to promote dramatic play.


Dramatic play, also referred to as pretend play, gives kids a chance to act out real life scenarios in a setting that is risk-free. It allows them to walk through something they’ve experienced before so they can better understand the circumstance and the big emotions that come along with it.


Toddlers may play “doctor” with their stuffed toys or dolls to overcome the fear they once experienced in a doctor’s office, etc.


Set Aside Special Parent-Child Bonding Time


The tips above can make toddlers’ big emotions easier to handle, but it will always be a little bit tough to be two (or three, or four).


Another great way to support your child during this time is to set aside plenty of special bonding time. You could:


  • Find 20 minutes per day to sit on the floor with your child and a pile of books, just reading and enjoying the time spent together.
  • Take a walk, just you and your toddler, and let them (safely) lead the way. See what they want to experience and have fun along the way!
  • Have a fun “date night” dinner, just the two of you for some special quality time
  • Spend some time each day playing with your toddler “device free,” so they feel they have got your full attention


Toddlers’ big emotions may be tricky, but with a little support from parents and close adults, this age does not need to match up with the phrase “terrible twos.” Remember to stay calm, understand the changes your toddler is going through, and teach them all about the new feelings they are experiencing. You are the perfect parent for your tiny human, and you’re sure to rock this stage, too.