Helping Pre-Toddlers with Intense Emotions

Find out how to respond when your 12-18 month old has intense emotions. Learn what you should do and what you should not do.

Emotional pretoddler

Emotional responses are a complex thing–even adults often can’t explain why they “feel” a certain way.

When your little pre-toddler (12-18 month old) cannot respond to the emotions she feels in a healthy way, it should be no surprise.

But just as we work to help our children learn to sleep, go potty on a toilet, and read, we work to teach our children to understand and express their emotions in a healthy way.

A fascinating thing about the brain is that it follows familiar paths. So if you focus on the negative, paths (called synapses) form in your brain that create essentially a negative train of thought.

The next time something comes up, your brain will take the path of least resistance. That is the path already formed. So you will jump to negative thoughts again.

We can train our brain to focus on the positive.

On Becoming Pre-Toddlerwise has two great ideas for helping parents encourage happy emotions while discouraging angry emotions (pages 100-101).

Reinforce Positive Emotions

The first tip is to respond to joy with joy. When your child is excited, you be excited, too. Reinforce that joy by showing you are happy for your child.

If your toddler is happy, you reflect that happiness.

This is providing a positive reinforcement for those positive emotions.

Be Gentle When Your Child is Upset

The second tip is to respond to anger with gentleness.

Do not respond with anger.

Remember we reflect what we want to see in our child. If we respond to an emotional toddler by being emotional ourselves, then we are reinforcing the negative emotions.

If your child yells or talks unkindly, do not respond in the same manner. Respond with kindness, gentleness, and patience.

This is of course not always so simple to do, but I have personally found this to be very effective. Responding with anger reinforces the anger.

Patience does not reinforce it, and it demonstrates the correct way to react when upset. 

Let me add, a child this age often gets very upset when he cannot communicate what he wants to. Pre-toddlers understand more than they can convey, and they get very frustrated when you don’t understand what they are trying to tell you.

I have an entire post to help you with this. Read The Screaming Non-Verbal Baby/Toddler.

Follow These Steps To Teach Your Toddler

These are very simple and yet very effective tips. They are also great because they are something you control completely. You control your reactions, so you have full power over this tip!

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4 thoughts on “Helping Pre-Toddlers with Intense Emotions”

  1. I just stumbled upon Harey Karp's Happy toddler book. I would like to know what you think about his way of dealing with toddler tantrums. In one way, I see his point, but in others I don't see how it is teaching the correct way to behave. It almost seems like it would be reinforcing the tantrum. Do you have thoughts or experience with his method? Maloree

  2. I haven't read that Maloree. If you want to post a premise I can tell you what I think based on that–otherwise I haven't read that book. I will add it to my books to read though 🙂

  3. You are right! These are simple (at least to understand) and yet super effective. Sometimes when tip #2 is very hard for me, I decide to take a nap at the next opportunity. That helps. 🙂


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