Toddler Emotions and Play

Toddler Emotions and Play

28 February 2022
Posted by: Chelsea

Most parents associate the sometimes-dreaded adolescent years with the threat of emotional turmoil in the house. However, emotions can be an issue with toddlers and pre-school children too.

Play is one way they’ll learn to understand and eventually control their emotions, particularly the more negative ones.

What is the timetable for emotions?

As per virtually every other aspect of young child development, there is no fixed schedule.

Statistically though, around:

  • 1-2 years; children should show demonstrations of envy, empathy, anger and perhaps embarrassment;
  • 1-2 years; they should be capable of understanding the need to control their raw urge for the acquisition of things by taking their turn;
  • 1-2 years; show that they can understand and express, at least to some to some extent, their feelings like “sad” or “happy”;
  • 1-2 years; demonstrate that they are aware of negative and positive emotions, such as that anger and its effects, like lashing out at other children, is a bad thing;
  • 2-3 years; a child should be showing clear signs of recognising a more complex range of emotions and that they’re making attempts to control them in their normal behaviours;
  • 2-3 years; be very capable of interacting with others and understand the need for sharing and thereby balancing their emotions against those of others;
  • 2-4 years;can control frustration. Yes, the occasional temper tantrum is still a possibility but they should show they don’t react in such a fashion every single time they have cause for disappointment.

Please don’t worry if your child is a little early or late demonstrating some of these characteristics. There can be huge variation here.

The role of play

Many emotions arise as a result of toddlers starting to become both more aware of themselves as individuals (around the age of 8-15 months) and the individuality of others.

Those emotions can be very positive, such as recognising a familiar face bringing food. Others are likely to be negative, such as frustration when a sibling takes a toy away or fear when they suddenly realise that they’re alone in a room.

An environment that maximises the potential exposure to new emotions is play.

Play allows children to experience a wide range of emotions and to learn how to control them but also to project and imagine emotions onto others by proxy. The first arises easily when they’re playing with parents or other children, the latter when they’re (e.g.) playing with toys and letting those be ‘real’ characters that get angry or sad etc.

Play is therefore critically important and providing opportunities for it is a big help in allowing your children to develop their emotional control. It’s also a good idea to try and provide as much of that as possible outdoors. As children get physical exercise as part of play, they’re also learning to control their emotions in the context of increased physical stimuli and greater blood flows/adrenaline rushes.

Where safely possible, let your children define their play and develop strategies for it. It’s a natural process and part of developing a rounded personality.

Emotions and problems

Problems in this area are rare. Even so, do seek professional advice from your doctor if:

  • 12-18 months, your child is showing little sign of emotion (positive such as smiling or negative, such as anger outbursts);
  • 12-18 months, the baby isn’t showing awareness of familiar faces nor any indications of separation anxiety when left alone;
  • 12-18 months, the baby or toddler is turning away from others trying to talk with them and avoiding eye contact;
  • 2-3 years, the child is unable to control their temper or constantly trying to hit, bite or otherwise attack other children or their care providers;
  • 2-3 years, seemingly very frequent temper tantrums or excessive crying for no obvious reason.

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