Toddler Emotions: Sad Due to Hurt Feelings

Learning to distinguish among all the possible emotional expressions of children 0-3 years old is no small task, especially as a new or first-time parent. From the time a baby is born, we must learn to decipher his cries to know whether he is hungry, thirsty, bored, overstimulated, tired, needs cuddling, or is in pain. As babies grow into toddlers, we learn which cries are significant (e.g., pain, injury, fatigue, hunger/thirst, overstimulation, etc.) and which are not (e.g., whining, crying to seek attention, crying because he didn’t get what he wanted, etc.). It is much easier to determine the reason for crying and sad-sounding emotional outbursts with toddlers, because we know them better and they are better at communicating than infants. What isn’t easy is determining as a parent or caregiver how best to respond to the cries and emotional expressions of toddlers in order for the best development of communication, social and emotional skills in a child so that he can meet his full potential as a human being.

In the video, 40-month old Sam explains how he became sad when his 6-year old sister, Stella, spoke in a way that hurt his feelings. Her take on the turn of events was quite different, of course, from Sam’s, as she said she simply “told him to go back to being on the computer because he was being too loud near the TV.” She insisted to me that she said it in a gentle, polite voice. Because I wasn’t there to witness what transpired, I wasn’t going to “yell at her,” as Sam suggests in the video, but I did acknowledge his feelings to him and let him know it would be up to Stella to apologize for hurting his feelings. I also spoke to Stella, within earshot of Sam, to encourage her to apologize if she felt she had intentionally hurt his feelings. I must say, he did seem satisfied with the end result and did not continue insisting she be yelled at or punished in some way.

Because toddlers are so egocentric and myopic much of the time (which is developmentally appropriate!), they easily misinterpret others’ actions as an offense towards them. It’s sticky territory to take a toddler’s interpretation of the world as fact, especially when they are swimming in the social and emotional pool of life, where they are just learning basic survival skills so they don’t sink in the pool. In that light, there was no point in disciplining Stella for that which I did not witness first hand or did not believe she had done (By 6 years old, I know her quite well!). By not “choosing sides,” I also prevent Sam from having the idea that I will side with him simply because he tells me something is the case as he sees it. I don’t give him the idea that he is his big sister’s “victim,” but that there is a solution when he believes he has been mistreated. I do all this intentionally and consciously in order to avoid creating a sibling rivalry situation, which could easily happen by feeding into the idea that he can “rat out” his sister, that everything he tells me about how others treat him is “fact,” and that I will automatically take his side because he came to report on the situation. At this point in his development, instead of seeking me out to “tell on” Stella or to be a victim, Sam seeks me out simply to express his feelings of sadness and to get guidance in terms of how he can solve his problem and begin to feel better about his interaction with his sister.


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