Toddler Emotions: Can’t Find My Words

In the video, 40-month old Sam is at a loss for words, which is not uncommon for any of us during times of high emotion. I can’t recall the reason for his upset prior to taking the video, but I am certain it was something “serious” in his 3-year old mind.

Because he was at a loss, I did all the work for him. I labeled possible emotions he was feeling (sad, mad, frustrated). I asked “What’s the matter?,” and paused for a few seconds in order to give him time to think about a possible response (He may not have verbalized it during the pause, but the pause allowed him time to say it in his own mind.). I encouraged him to use his words to tell me what his problem was. I asked if he needed to ask for help. In the end, I allowed him to sit quietly with his feelings, without being able to talk about them, since it was obvious after a minute of trying he was still unable to talk about his feelings. Although he couldn’t find his words in that moment, the words he heard me use, my encouraging manner, and the fact that I took the time to care about his feelings will all make a significant difference as he continues to develop his social and emotional skills.

I have a strong belief that if every child in the world had at least one caring adult who was willing to take the time and energy to do just this when an infant or toddler was upset, the world would be a different place. When we validate a child’s feelings by stopping what we’re doing, listening, and encouraging emotional expression, even when the reasons behind the upset seem silly or unwarranted in our adult minds, we tell a child the following (along with much more!):

1) You are special.
2) You matter.
3) You are a human being, just like me, with thoughts and feelings.
4) I have time for you.
5) I understand what you are feeling.
6) I care about you.
7) I want to teach you and nurture you, and you deserve that.
8) I can help you.
9) You can depend on me.
10) You are growing and developing just as you are supposed to do.

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