I have a normally developing child who is just under 2 years old. He's an emotionally "intense" kid, and I want to work with him on developing emotional regulation and understanding his feelings.

He doesn't show any red flags for emotional or social problems or disorders and his behavior is developmentally normal for his age, I just want to give him as many skills and tools as possible to succeed, and foster a healthy emotional life/good mental health.

Does anyone have tips for activities, books, conversations, or techniques to teach a toddler about emotions and emotional regulation?


Dr. David's 4 steps:

  1. Feel it.

Don't try to push away your child's negative emotions, but validate them.

  1. Show It.

Directed against rules about hiding some emotions, like "Boys don't cry."

  1. Label It.

Enable children to name or otherwise identify emotions (the older they get, the more you can talk about it.)

  1. Watch It Go.

Teaching them that emotions also pass.

This is what sadness feels like. This is what it feels like after it passes. This is what I did that helped it pass.

(Source: Dell'Antonia, Teaching Your Child Emotional Agility, The New York Times, 2016.10.04)

The next advice is from the Victoria State Government page on Emotional intelligence:

  1. Identifying feelings

Younger children can point to drawn faces showing emotions, older children can be asked

You look a bit upset. Is that how you are feeling?” or “I wonder if you are feeling angry about that. What do you think?”.

  1. Calming down

Parents can help children to do this by learning to rate their level of upset from 0 (nothing) to 10 (out of control) and to then start to talk (at a time when they are NOT angry) about ways to help them to calm down.

But note that this may differ greatly between children.

  1. Reading other people's emotions

Suggesting guessing games, e. g.

“What do you think that person is feeling?”, ‘What sort of day do you think that person has had?”, or “What mood do you think that person is in?”

They also suggest to help them learn reading facial expressions by having them look at photos.

  1. Predicting other people’s actions

They suggest freezing the DVD and let the child guess what a character will do next.

The NYAEC suggests the following strategies to regulate emotions (though they rather speak of 3-8 year olds):

  • Taking deep breaths
  • Engaging in private self-talk (e.g., “I know I can do this!”)
  • Reframing negative interactions (e.g., “She is having a hard day. No wonder she reacted that way.”)
  • Stepping back and allowing physical distance (e.g., taking a short walk at lunch time)
  • Seeking social support (e.g., talking to a friend and making plans to spend time together)

Again for somewhat older children, there is an interesting handout (Enhancing Emotional Vocabulary in Young Children by Gail E. Joseph, CSEFEL) with examples of emotional vocabulary and who also states:

Note first that the foundational element, the necessary context, for emotional literacy development is a supportive, caring relationship.

Even though this is mostly for older children, your child is not too young to label some emotions:

Children's abilities to label emotional expressions start developing from as early as 2 years of age (Izard and Harris, 1995; Denham, 1998). Bretherton and Beeghly interviewed mothers of 28 month old children about their vocabulary, and found that over 60% of the children were familiar with the emotional terms happy, scared, and mad (i.e., angry), and were able to use them in their language.

(Baron-Cohen S, Golan O, Wheelwright S, Granader Y, Hill J. Emotion word comprehension from 4 to 16 years old: a developmental survey. Front Evol Neurosci. 2010;2:109. Published 2010 Nov 25. doi:10.3389/fnevo.2010.00109)

  • 1
    GREAT answer! +1 isn't enough! And we both linked to the same CSEFEL module. :) – anongoodnurse Apr 4 '19 at 21:24
  • Thank you, this is great. It also reassures me for a bit that what I've been doing ("You look very upset! Would you like a hug to help you help you calm down?) is a pretty reasonable/useful response. – Meg Apr 5 '19 at 13:23

At 2 years of age, it is not too early to start lovingly teaching a child to learn to express their emotions in socially appropriate ways. One of the first steps is to give a child a rich emotional vocabulary (something even many adults don't have, e.g. attend an anger management course! You'll see adults newly learning about naming emotions.)

The first step to learning how to handle an emotion is to name it.

If you don't name your own emotions around your child, it will seem very strange to talk about theirs, so start identifying your own feelings and have your partner do the same in conversation with each other and with your child. They know and learn more than they can express. Look at emotional vocabulary charts on the internet and aim above the level recommended for a 2 year old.

In order to correctly perceive feelings in yourself and others, you first have to have words for those feelings, a feeling lexicon. Many children are either “happy” or “mad” and miss all the subtle gradations of feelings in-between because they do not have labels and definitions for those emotions. A large and more complex feeling vocabulary allows children to make finer discriminations between feelings; to better communicate with others about their internal affective states; and to engage in discussions about their personal experiences with the world.

Some examples of expressing your feelings in front of your child:

-That noise is so loud. I feel irritated.
-Look at all these bubbles. It's exciting!
-I'm confused. Why is daddy talking to himself?
-I'm a little bit afraid of the monster in that book. Are you? You're not? You're brave!
-What a mistake that was! I'm embarrassed.
-Are you feeling ignored because no one is paying attention to you?
-I feel uncomfortable when I see someone yelling.

By lovingly, I mean that this has to be done for the welfare of the child, not to get them to behave. That comes later.

If, for example, a child starts expressing themself by hitting, if they have no emotional vocabulary, you can't explore why they use that behavior in a situation. With a feeling lexicon, you can explore it with them.

Before you hit your sister, what were you feeling? (e.g. "mad") But what made you mad? Were you feeling jealous/ignored/unloved/unimportant/frustrated/etc. (depending on the circumstances)?

Of course, you don't ignore the behavior, but talking about it afterwards in a place of safety and acceptance, you can help the child work out different strategies to deal with feelings.

This is already a long answer, but the other important strategy in helping your child emotionally is to teach them resilience. It comes naturally to some people, but it is a teachable skill.

Resilient people have

  • close relationships with family and friends
  • a positive view of themselves and [reason-based] confidence in their strengths and abilities
  • the ability to manage strong feelings and impulses
  • good problem-solving and communication skills
  • feelings of being in control
  • know how to seek help and resources
  • see themselves as resilient rather than as a victim
  • cope with stress in healthy ways and avoid harmful coping strategies, such as substance abuse
  • help others
  • find positive meaning in their lives despite difficult or traumatic events

Isn't this what we all want for our children?

Enhancing Emotional Vocabulary in Young Children

The Road to Resilience

  • Thanks! This is very much what I was looking for. I do use feeling words with him but I think the idea of 'aiming up' to naming more subtle and complex emotions than just "happy", "mad", "scared" is going to really appeal to him as he's in a vocabulary "explosion" at the moment. – Meg Apr 5 '19 at 13:19

I recommend to start with many research-based methods described in this relatively short book: The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind, by Daniel J. Siegel, Tina Payne Bryson. It has plenty of concrete suggestions of how to teach yourself and your child about emotional intelligence and emotional regulation. Some of them were mentioned by in the previous answers, but there are many more in the book. There is also an audiobook version of it, which I liked. An (overly brief) summary can be found in the Whole-Brain Child Refrigerator Sheet, but the summary makes much more sense after your read the book. I especially like the visual description of the different parts of the brain using a fist (!) that make sense to the child as well as the adult. The research-based recommendations include some of my favorites:

  • When the child is upset or when the child upset someone, you need first to connect emotionally (right brain to right brain), and then after the emotional storm has passed, connect on higher level (left brain to left brain).
  • When someone in the family is hurt (fell down, bumped the toe, etc), take care of that person, but also teach the child: "See, you sister fell down. She is in pain. She is crying. We want to hug her and kiss her, so that she feels better". Then console the sister together with the child. By repeating this general behavior, the child gets practical lessons in emotional intelligence and eventually starts doing this on her own. When this happens (around 2 years old, if you start early), it is so heartwarming to watch!

There must be good sources on how to teach mindfulness meditation to children. I recommend looking for those. These (non-religious) methods help adults and children be more aware of what is actually happening now, including the fleeting emotions, both their own and those of others. It helps both with emotional intelligence and with emotional regulation. But I have not read any of those guides for children and cannot recommend any specific one. Hopefully, others on StackExchange can help.

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