by Tammia Streuber
Maria Montessori wrote, “The child has a different relation to his environment from ours… the child absorbs it. The things he sees are not just remembered; they form part of his soul. He incarnates in himself all in the world about him that his eyes see and his ears hear.”
If we adhere to these powerful words of Montessori then we are to believe that our young infants and toddlers are absorbing all that is around them, and are really creating a version of their future selves. If we want these future selves to be emotionally mature beings who have empathy for others and aren’t afraid to express themselves then it is our job to teach these children how to identify and respond to these emotions, and maybe most importantly of all that it is ok to express and have these feelings.
Talk About the Emotions
Labeling how your child is feeling in the moment may be one of the most helpful tools in learning about emotions. It allows the child to have a real example of what it means to be sad, frustrated, or even angry. When we put the words, “I see that you’re sad,” or “I know it’s frustrating” into context with their tears or angry outbursts we are helping them understand what is going on inside of their body. The words sad or frustrated begin to have a context and meaning apart from just being a word that adults use. It gives these children a way to eventually start discussing their feelings with others.
Not only is labeling a child’s emotions helpful, but we can also label our own feelings for children. When we lock our keys in the car and have a moment of frustration that could lead into a not so pleasant expression of words; we can think twice and say, “I’m so frustrated.” It’s OK for our children to see our vulnerable expressions of feelings. It again puts a context to the words and makes it more real for the child. Saying, “I’m sad right now. I can feel the tears on my face,” may be exactly what your child needs to see and hear to know what sadness means.
Go beyond just labeling emotions, and let your child know that it’s normal and OK to express their emotions. We want to create humans who are in touch with this side of themselves, and don’t hesitate to let others know how they are feeling. When your child is throwing themselves on the floor because they didn’t get that toy they wanted; feel free to say, “I see that you’re angry right now. It’s OK to feel that way. I get angry sometimes too.” The simple words of “it’s OK to feel that way” may be the magical words that stop the tantrum.
Most importantly they are the magical words that your child will remember when they are the adult who may be feeling angry, and instead of bottling up these emotions they will be able to express them in a healthy way.
At the infant and toddler level we need to remember to keep our responses simple and to the point. Once we’ve labeled and empathized with our child then we can give some words and directions that will hopefully help our child self-sooth and manage their emotions. Taking a deep breath and exhaling can often work wonders for the child who is very upset. This moment of taking a breath often relaxes their body in a way that very few things can, and lets them begin to focus on what comes next.
When taking a breath doesn’t work we can also offer the option of needing some time and space. It’s ok to tell your child that it looks like they need some space, and slowly step back to give them the time and space they need to work through their emotions. Not all emotions have an easy resolution, and sometimes the best thing is to allow the toddler to feel the emotions and let it pass. Other times asking them if they need something or asking them if they would like a hug is a sign of respecting them but offering a tangible connection they may need to work through their emotions.
Dealing with emotions is not always an easy thing to do. However, the work you put in now will only help to benefit your child’s future self!
Tammia Streuber is MCH's Lead Teacher in the Infant/Toddler Program. You can reach her here.