Toddler Emotions: I Don’t Like You!

The video of 40-month old Sam is the perfect example of how a toddler misinterprets others’ actions as a direct offense against him (See my blog from 5/20/13 in which I discuss the topic in terms of Sam’s sad feelings.). Sam often feels anywhere from mildly disgruntled to down-right ticked off that I have to take the iPad from home in order to use it with my speech therapy clients. The video shows one of his milder reactions to the fact that he doesn’t have 100% access to the device whenever he sees fit. He directs his thoughts towards me (since I am the offender), but he does not truly mean that he doesn’t like me.

Sam uses the phrase “I don’t like you” in the video to mean “I don’t like that you take the iPad from home and that I can’t play with it when you do.” He doesn’t have the language skills to explain his feelings and thoughts well enough, but he also sees the world only through his own eyes in terms of his wants and needs. He’s developing a sense of others wants/needs and his logical thinking skills, but it won’t be until about the age of 7 (when logical reasoning typically develops in children) that he will be able to “see” the truth of my need for the iPad to do my job. He will tell me that he doesn’t like me until he can develop the language skills to explain how my behavior/actions affects him.

My response is the best one to give a child who says they don’t like someone, whether it be a parent, grandparent, child care provider, sibling, neighbor, the overly friendly cashier, or the person who might look different from most people he knows (e.g., someone who uses a wheelchair, dresses very differently, etc.). There’s no point in taking the toddler’s comment personally, or assuming that he is a mean-spirited child who doesn’t like people, since it is not the way he means it. To simply respond, “You might change your mind later” in a calm, unaffected voice means the comment comes and goes as a comment on the action (or difference in someone that makes him feel unsure of the world around him). There is no need to make him feel like he is an unkind little troll (even though the temptation is so great to do so when he says “I don’t like you” or “I don’t like that weird man”!). It’s too early in his development of language and social-emotional skills to have the lesson of what we say, how we say it and when we say it affect his burgeoning sense of self and self-esteem.

That said, guiding a child’s social-emotional development would be appropriate at this age through play with figures or puppets. Modeling hurtful language with one figure/puppet and appropriate responses or idea-expression with a different figure/puppet can help a child understand how to use language in socially appropriate ways. Role-playing with stuffed animals or dolls also helps a child understand and use social language skills as well as how to understand and express his emotions.

The following is a list of some of my favorite books that can teach social-emotional language and are appropriate for 0-3 year old children:

1) Owl Babies, by Martin Wadell
2) Todd Parr books (In particular, It’s Okay to Be Different, The Feelings Book, This is My Hair, Things That Make You Feel Good/Things That Make You Feel Bad)
3) Mercer Mayer books (In particular, I Just Forgot and Baby Sister Says “No!”
4) Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney
5) Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods That Make My Day, by Jamie Lee Curtis
6) No Matter What, by Debi Gliori
7) Feelings, Aliki
8) My Many Colored Days, Dr. Seuss
9) Llama Llama Mad at Mama, Anna Dewdney
10) Are You My Mother?, by P.D. Eastman
11) Go Away, Big Green Monster!, by Ed Emberley
12) Leslie Patricelli books (In particular, No No Yes Yes, Quiet Loud, Yummy Yucky)

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