Toddler Emotions: Ups and Downs and All Arounds


Your toddler is talking more, exploring more, and acting more independently. There are new and exciting things to experience, whether it is going to story time in the library, playing in the park, or planning a trip to see Grandpa!

Along with new experiences and activities will, inevitably, come frustration, disappointment, anger, sadness, and other strong emotions. Toddlers are known for their “big” feelings and you can help your toddler during this big leap in their development.

The part of our brain that processes big feelings and emotions (the limbic system) is developing rapidly in toddlers. We can help shape healthy patterns for responding to big feelings. Built on the structure and wiring of the brainstem, all the times you met your baby’s physical and emotional needs form the foundation of trust that their needs will be met as they grow. When a big feeling arises (or rears its ugly head), just naming the feeling helps your toddler’s brain relax and eventually with consistency, they will be able to name their own feeling and move into their thinking brain to solve the problem.

Here are some ideas to help with managing these big emotions!

First, it can be helpful to notice when your child is struggling with their emotions and step in before the situation escalates.

You might see your child:

  • Quieting or whining or otherwise shifting their mood
  • Throwing things, such as toys or food
  • Hitting or biting other children or adults, or themselves
  • Refusing options they usually like – they are offered apples or pears for a snack, but refuse both.
  • Quickly and angrily give up working on a “project,” such as a favorite puzzle.

When your child is having a hard time managing their emotions:

  • Name your child’s feelingsBy naming the feeling, you are building emotional vocabulary so that eventually they will be able to recognize and name their own feelings. This is the first step to regulation.
  • Validate your child’s feelings and experiences. Show sympathy and understanding. Even if you can’t understand why your toddler is so upset that you gave them the red cup instead of the green cup, just remember that your toddler’s feelings are very real to them
    • “We didn’t get to go to the park this morning because it’s raining. It’s really fun to go to the park and play on the swings and in the sandbox. You feel really angry because we can’t go and play. Let’s hope we can try again another day when it is not raining so hard.”
  • Find safe and appropriate ways for your child to process their emotions.
    • Angry – How about punching a pillow or having a special “biting toy?” Make sure to emphasize hitting or biting people or animals is not okay.
    • Sad – “Would you like to cuddle up in my lap while I read you a special story?”
    • Frustrated – Try the “Smell the flower, blow out the candle” breathing technique for calming down.
  • Find time to get outside and exercise every day. Toddlers, like us, need lots of time and opportunity to let off steam. Toddlers learn with their whole body and through interaction with you. Just kicking a ball back and forth or playing chase will prevent or tone down some of those inevitable upsets.

Everyday ways to help toddlers with their emotions

You don’t need to wait for an epic upset to teach your child about feelings and emotions! There are things you can do in your everyday routine to help your child work through their emotions.

  • Practice patience:
    • Mark time with music – If your child needs to wash their hands thoroughly, have them sing the birthday song and keep washing until the song is finished.
    • Teach your toddler about taking turns – Switch off using different color crayons. Use a kitchen or phone timer to mark how much time you can use each color. Let them know how great they are doing waiting to use the next color or acknowledge that it’s hard to wait sometimes.
  • Pay attention to transitions. Give a five minute warning, and a two minute warning when changing activities. Aim to get your toddler invested in the new activity. “In five minutes, it will be time to put the crayons away. Then we’ll go to the park for our play date with Sammy.”
  • Make a habit of naming emotions:
    • Is there an angry, sad, happy, or excited character in a movie or book? Point out and name the emotion – “Jameson is angry because he didn’t get to pick out a toy.” “Look how excited Alex is about going to the library with his Grandma.”
  • Talk about your emotions and how you handle them – “Daddy is disappointed there are no more bananas left to buy in the store. Let’s buy apples instead.”
    • Even your pets can help – “The dog feels happy with her new toy!”

The toddler years can sometimes feel like an emotional rollercoaster. One minute, you’re up, the next you’re down—and once you think you’ve got everything figured out, your toddler throws you for a loop! It’s not always an easy ride, but it’s worth it.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis, and Lynne Grilley. 

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