Teaching toddlers to express feelings

My toddler is in peak tantrum season.

He yells. He hits. He hurts me and says, I pinch you, or I hit you. Then he sulks and hides in a corner.  And if I follow him, he says “Stop it, chasing me Mommy.”

Name the feeling

So I might say “You are feeling mad, and you want to be alone.” He says, “yes.”  Then I leave him alone and he usually comes back.

Because he is so little, he often struggles with putting words to his feelings.  By labeling them, I am giving him a tool to help him express his feelings… in the future.

Expanding their feelings vocabulary

Anxious, disappointed, frustrated, jealous, scared, disgusted, excited, silly, etc…

There are so many words to express how we feel.  However, unfortunately, I have met eight-year-olds with very limited feelings vocabularies.  A few years back I asked a third grade student why he punched someone, and he said it was because he was feeling “bad”.

Expanding children’s feeling vocabulary, helps them to identify their own feelings, and then to begin the process of calming down.

With young children, I do this, proactively, by reading children’s literature about feelings expression, playing games, and by people watching.

Using mirrors

Mirrors are also a great tool to teach young children about the visible changes that occur in your face when you express different emotions.  Play around with this, when your child is calm. You can ask them to show you a feeling.  As they get better, you can ask them what face they would have given a specific situation ie… they won a prize, or they fell on the playground.


For toddlers distraction can be a great tool.  Some times it works, some times it doesn’t.  But it is always worth a try.


A great idea, which I came across recently, is to use the acronym HALT, as a que to think through the source of your child’s strong feelings.  Are they Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?  Then address that need first, before you address their behavior.



When my kids and I are leaving one activity that is of high interest, I try to discuss what we will be doing next.  Sometimes, I let them choose a stick or a rock, to bring home from the playground.  And sometimes, I give them a lollipop, when I need to avoid a public scene.  ( a little bribery here and there never hurt anyone)

Toddlerhood, is fortunately just a phase, but we can assist our kiddos by providing them with skills and tools to express their feelings.  Coping skills are the next step… but we have to start somewhere.