Friday, March 2, 2012

Toddler Tip # 1

Here's the first of my sanity-saving tips for parenting toddlers.

Empathize and verbalize your toddlers' BIG emotions for them.

It goes without saying that toddlers have big feelings and they are known for expressing them in a big way! Whether it be through tantrums, meltdowns, screaming, or acting out, toddler behaviour is often just plain BIG!

(What Mama hasn't wanted to crawl away and hide when her toddler decided to act out in front of the Pastor or right in the middle of an hour-long grocery trip? not me.)

I remember when I first read about this tip. Ellie (10) was about 4, Nathaniel (7) was 2, and Noah (5)  was an infant. I tried it and found instant success! Since then I have used it with all of my toddlers with equally great success.

Here's how it works: Toddler starts getting upset (screaming, fussing, falling to the floor in tears, etc). Instead of instantly disciplining the child, get on eye-level with them by either picking them up or kneeling down in front of them. Then verbalize what they are unable to say. Ask questions. Offer empathy. Finally, gently redirect the child to whatever you need or want them to do next.

Seriously. I know this sounds really simple. But it REALLY WORKS!

I'll give you a practical example from one of our Bergey Bunch toddlers, Ethan (2).

----At the end of a family shopping trip to Sam's Club, we pushed our full to the brim with kids and groceries carts past the book section. Ethan immediately saw a train book he wanted. "Mommy, can I pweaaase hold the twain book?" I told him "no" because it was time to go "bye-bye", then pushed the cart right past the books.

Ethan was not happy. :) His little bottom lip started to stick out and he started to whine and fuss.

(This is the point at which, before discovering this tip, I would have immediately disciplined my first two toddlers for whining.)

I picked him up and whispered into his ear. "Ethan, are you very sad because you liked that train book?" (EMPATHY)

A slightly whimpered, "Yes!"

"And you really wanted to read it, didn't you?" (VERBALIZE HIS FEELINGS)


"It looked like a fun book to read, didn't it?" (MORE VERBALIZING)

Now he was starting to calm down. "Yes!"

"Well, we can't read it this time because it's time to go bye-bye now. But next time we come to Sam's, I will let you look at that train book, ok?"(EMPATHY AND REDIRECTION)

Completely calm and starting to smile at this point, he said, "Ok! Thank you Mommy!" and wrapped his sweet little arms around my neck. :)

"Ok, buddy, why don't you help Mommy with the groceries now?" (GENTLE REDIRECTION)

He sat back down in the cart and we didn't see an ounce of attitude after that.

I could have handled this situation more confrontationally ("Stop that whining right now!") but have found that, often, toddlers fuss, whine, or scream because they lack the necessary communication skills to act otherwise. If a parent can help them work through their big emotions by verbalizing them for them, the toddler feels understood instead of frustrated.

This simple tip has helped me tremendously in parenting my toddlers!


  1. Thanks for sharing! I think this is a great idea! I think I do this some with Wade but didn't really connect it to the point about verbalizing their emotions for them. That makes a lot of sense!!

  2. I'd pay good money to shadow you for a day! lol I can't wait to try this out!

  3. My mom did this with me and my sister all the time and I picked it up from her and use it too. I thought everyone already did this. I had no idea it could be a revelation to some. When I think back I had only one meltdown in the store with my daughter and no I was NOT sympathetic at that time but trying to boss her around. Provoke not your children to wrath.

    On the adoption front, I did this just the other day with my almost 6 year old as we talked about her birth parents. Instead of avoiding what I thought she might be thinking about them I verbalized it to my already very verbal daughter. She burst out crying but relieved that I UNDERSTOOD what she was thinking and feeling. We snuggled close and she was comforted. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. This is a good reminder. I find it harder to do this with my son than with my daughter. I'm not sure why. With her it comes naturally (maybe because I understand how she thinks) but with my son it's more difficult. I guess we naturally think that any negative outburst is rebellion, but sometimes it might just be sadness that they don't know how to rationally express.

  5. Great advice! It sounds a lot like The Happiest Toddler on the Block book, and that book is awesome!

  6. I read a book that had a similar tip (can't remember the title of the book) and called it something like "toddlerese" (language of toddler). I used it from the second my adopted daughter was a toddler and she only had one mild tantrum EVER. I think it even went one step further and suggested (when they are very young - like 2) if they are already very upset to use as few words as possible while still conveying the message that they can't convey. (Like "Ethan sad. Ethan wants to read. Would be fun. Very upset.").

    She is one who REALLY needs to be heard and understood (even now that she is 5). Thanks for reminding me of this great tip. You are a wonderful mama.

  7. This was a great post ! I love how you wrote it all out illustrating where/how to use the approach. We actually do this alot--even for our oldest (Cami--7 1/2) since she has difficulty communicating her thoughts, needs, and feelings. was helpful to see the method written out so thanks for sharing. =)

  8. Selina- I've seen you write now a couple of times that you parented your older two bio children differently than your younger children. I was wondering what made you change your approach and your expectations. Was it a class? Another mom who mentored you? I love to read and hear about when people make changes, learn, and do better. It means we as humans can be better and do better! Congratulations on your beautiful children.


I welcome any and all comments as long as they are Christ-honoring. Please let me know what you think!