One of the most important tasks in parenting toddlers is helping them learn to manage their emotions, which is the foundation of interpersonal relationships. This skill set is more critical to their happiness in life than school performance or any of our other conventional measures. In fact, emotional intelligence -- defined as the ability to manage one's own emotions and relate well with others -- will be a crucial factor throughout their lives in not only relationships but academic and career success.
Empathize, Empathize, Empathize. Kids who receive a lot of empathy for their own feelings from the adults in their lives are the earliest to develop empathy for others, and research has shown that empathy for others is the cornerstone of successful interpersonal relationships.
Don't force toddlers to share; it actually delays the development of sharing skills! Kids need to feel secure in their ownership before they can share. Instead, introduce the concept of taking turns. ("It's Crystal's turn to use the bucket. Then it will be your turn.")
Before friends come over, toddlers should have a chance to put away their most special toys if they don't want anyone else to play with them. Use that ritual as an opportunity to explain that the visiting child will of course expect to play with Junior's other toys, just as Junior plays with his friends' toys at their houses. Another useful tactic is for the parent to keep a chest of "Mom and Dad's toys." Junior is allowed to use them, of course, because Mom and Dad share, so Junior sees useful modeling. Equally important, Junior won't feel as possessive about sharing them with visitors, because they aren't his.
Set clear limits on physical acting out. "I know you're mad, but we don't hit. Use your words. Use this marker and paper and draw me a picture of how mad you are. We can go in the bathroom and shut the door and scream about how mad you are. You can throw pillows at the couch as hard as you want. But no hitting and no biting." Kids are entitled to their feelings, which have a way of just showing up in human beings, like our arms and legs. But all humans, even little ones, should be held responsible for what they do with their arms and legs and feelings. Our job as parents is to teach them healthy self-management techniques.
It's never too early to give children language for their feelings. Labeling emotion is the first step in managing it. "That big dog's bark is scary, but you're safe on this side of the fence and I would never let it hurt you. You don't need to be afraid." "It's so frustrating when you work hard on your tower and it collapses like that. No wonder you're angry." "You wish you had a truck just like Jeremy's. It's hard to give it back when it's his turn. Here, let's make a road for the truck with the snowplow, and then we can have another turn with the truck on our new road."
Remember that underneath anger is always hurt or fear. Acknowledging those feelings is always more effective to diffuse anger than simply labeling the anger, which just seems to reinforce it. "I hear you're very angry at Jimmy. I wonder if you're hurt that he wants to play with someone else right now."
This is even more important when kids say "I hate him!" because hate is not a feeling; it's a stance. "You feel so angry at your brother right now that you feel like you hate him. Sometimes when we are very, very angry, we feel that way, even toward people we love. Let's go tell your brother how hurt you are that he pushed you off the swing, and how angry that makes you feel."
Model working through difficulties. When she's mad at her friend, for instance, you can say "I know you're really mad at Maria right now, but friends sometimes get mad and then they work things out. We can talk about how you might work things out with Maria when you feel ready."
Begin introducing the concept of noticing how other people feel as early as you can. "Look at Michael. He's crying. I think you hurt his feelings." "That little girl is sure mad. I wonder why?" "Neela hurt herself. I wonder if we can do anything to help her feel better?"
Stay Calm. Research shows that one of the most important things parents can do to help kids learn to manage their emotions is to stay calm themselves. Kids need to experience their parents as a "holding environment" -- a safe harbor in the storm of their turbulent feelings. If you can stay calm yourself, and soothe your child, she will eventually learn to sooth herself, which is the first step in learning to manage her feelings.
Remember they're kids. Just because Robert bites a playmate doesn't mean he'll be an axe-murderer. It's important not to permit bad behavior toward others, but that doesn't mean you don't offer understanding -- and the confidence that your child will learn. "All kids get mad at their friends sometimes. It will be easier, as you get older, to remember how to control yourself when you get mad, so you can work things out." Kids need to hear from you that they aren't bad people, just little.
Dr. Laura Markham