The Gerber Life Parenting Blog

Teaching Toddlers to Express Themselves

February 11, 2015

toddler expressing feelingsBy age one, toddler’s brains are on overload with so much data and stimulus, notes John Medina, Ph.D., author of Brain Rules for Baby, that the information can be overwhelming and make it hard for little ones – with their limited verbal capabilities – to accurately understand and express their feelings in a clear way. So what happens? The dreaded toddler temper tantrum, he says.

It’s important for parents to teach their toddlers how to express themselves and their needs in ways that are more productive than a tantrum, and that can help them to be heard and feel satisfied.

At the early stage of ages 1 to 3, the parent is a coach who is training a toddler how to express himself or herself without exploding. To do so, your toddler needs:

  • Descriptive Words: Just as you teach your child to equate the word “circle” to a round shape drawn on a page, you also need to help him or her recognize feelings of anger and how to express them in a beneficial way. You can help your toddler to connect a given word with the feeling it arouses by using supportive and expressive language, such as: “You’re angry that he took your truck. It’s okay that you’re mad. Let’s talk about how you can express that feeling positively.”You can also share how you’re feeling with your child: “Mommy is happy when you stay seated in the grocery cart at the store.” Once that your child is familiar with the words and corresponding feelings, it’s a good idea to offer him or her an explanation – which provides an opportunity for you to ask your child to name and describe his or her feelings. For example: “Are you okay? How did you feel when that other child took your truck?”For older toddlers, you can take this exercise in expression further, to include conflict resolution: “What do you think we should do to solve this?”


  • Choices: Toddler frustration can often be caused by too many choices, a very hard concept for young minds to identify and articulate. Dr. Linda Acredolo, author of Baby Minds, suggests giving your child two options. At snack time, for example, you could ask your toddler, “Would you like cheese or pretzels?” The alternative – “What would you like for a snack?” – is too open-ended and therefore more likely to elicit frustration and demonstrate your toddler’s limitations of language. Having only two choices, however, empowers your child without overwhelming.


  • Acceptance: To help your toddler to feel safe when expressing himself or herself, it’s important to accept the feelings that he or she expresses. This is especially important for older toddlers who may start to be embarrassed or shy about sharing their feelings. For example, if a child falls on the playground and your daughter’s first reaction is to giggle, don’t rush to scold her. Instead, try to talk with your daughter about her feelings, in a non-judgmental way. It’s okay to ask open-ended questions, but also try to guide her toward making a conscientious choice of words for what she expresses and when. For example: “Oh no, she fell. That makes me feel concerned about her. I’m glad she’s not hurt. What do you think? How do you feel?”


  • Outlets: Tantrums are a part of toddlerhood. Sometimes we all need to vent. The goal, however, is to allow your child to display self-expression while also setting boundaries for who he or she shares feelings with, and when. You can give your child clear outlets for venting frustrations, including age-appropriate language training and physical outlets. An example: “I see that you’re feeling angry right now. Would you like to go outside and use that energy on the swings?” or “You’re looking sad; you might feel better if you let it out and cried.”

It’s equally important to encourage children to express feelings of happiness to the outside world. You could exemplify this the next time you’re feeling happy by saying to your child, “When I’m happy, I love to sing and dance. Let’s dance!” When teaching toddlers to express themselves, let them know that, no matter the emotion, there is language and action that can help them to get it out and move on. By providing positive outlets, you empower your toddler to address and cope with emotions and feelings in constructive ways.

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