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“I’m Happy AND I’m Sad”: Toddlers and “Mixed-Together” Feelings



Down comes 2 1/2 year old Sasha’s foot in the mud puddle. She squeals in delight as the water splashes up her leg. Sasha repeats this over and over, only stopping when she excitedly notices a worm in another puddle.

A most magical aspect of caring for my children as toddlers (and later my young grandchildren) was their constant inspiration for me to be 100% present.  Oh, the delight of being in the here and now!

Here’s another familiar scene:

Sasha is intently focused on stacking blocks. She looks up to see her mom getting her purse and keys, “It’s time to go to the store, Sasha. You can play with your blocks when we come back.” Sasha ignores her mom and doesn’t make any attempt to get up.

Both of these scenes remind us of the same developmental aspect of toddlerhood that both delights and challenges us.

A toddler brain cannot simultaneously coordinate more than one perspective at once, consider and hold multiple concepts in mind, and reflect on the present and the future at once. This ability is still emerging, so how can we help toddlers begin to express their “mixed together” feelings as they grow and develop, while still honoring what is developmentally appropriate for them?

The journey to becoming a preschooler

Older toddlers can increasingly identify having more than one feeling at once.  They can be both sad to leave their friends and happy to see their mom. They become capable of both understanding and expressing their complex feelings.  A preschooler might even say, “I’m happy to see you and I’m sad to stop playing with my friends.”

Some ways to support toddler emotional development

  1.  Support how your toddler is feeling “in the moment” by giving them feeling vocabulary: “You look really sad that you have to stop playing.”
  2.  Begin using more than one feeling words with something that is not emotionally laden such as trying a new food: “You look curious about the broccoli and unsure about trying it.”
  3.  Label emotions that come in succession: “It was hard to leave and now you are happy to see your doggie”
  4.  Suggest your toddler pick more than one feeling on a feeling chart: “You picked a happy face. What other feeling face can you pick?”
  5.  Embrace all your toddler’s feelings and avoid trying to talk them out of any:   “Looks like you feel determined and frustrated when you keep trying to stack the blocks”
  6.  Model expressing your complex feelings: “I was scared when you fell and happy you are not hurt”
  7. Use problem solving to help them to consider another emotion, as well: “It’s disappointing your block tower fell, let’s look for a smaller block to place on the top”
  8.  Read picture books about emotions: Include books that focus on singular emotions and books that reflect “mixed-together” feelings.

As your child is leaving toddlerhood and becoming a preschooler, lay the groundwork for your child to express complex emotions such as: “I’m happy-sad together.” When you support your child on their developmental journey, you give them a gift that last a lifetime.


Lory Britain (www.lorybritain.com) is a children’s book author and has been supporting children and families in our community and around the world for 35 years. Her latest book, I’m Happy-Sad Today is available at local bookstores and at https://www.freespirit.com/early-childhood/im-happy-sad-today-lory-britain-matthew-rivera

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