It’s no secret that toddler emotions can be challenging for parents to deal with, especially if that wave of emotions hits while you’re at the supermarket or in a restaurant. But it’s easy to forget how tough those emotions are for your toddler too.
In the past, it was common for strong emotions to be responded to with discipline. However, many parents are no longer satisfied with this authoritarian style of parenting, realising that punishment and harsh discipline aren’t the answer when it comes to feelings. This has led more and more parents to move towards a Montessori style of parenting, responding to their child’s emotions with support and understanding.
Many psychologists agree with this approach, with research conducted by Center On The Developing Child at Harvard University revealing that a child’s early emotional experiences become deeply embedded in their brain and continue to influence their responsive behaviour for the rest of their lives.
But what is the Montessori approach to helping your toddler to deal with their emotions, and how can you put it into practice?
What does Maria Montessori say about emotions?
The Montessori concept places a large importance on feelings and emotions. It aims to teach children to understand and talk about their emotions, allowing them to develop emotional intelligence and become well-rounded adults.
Maria Montessori put huge emphasis on the importance of giving children respect, viewing them as “the greatest marvel of nature”. In respecting children, we should recognise and understand their needs, along with supporting them on their journey to understand their own emotions.
Montessori principles involve not seeking to resolve the situation by offering a solution, but instead offering compassion and empathy to allow the child to seek their own resolution.
Name the emotion
When your child experiences a strong emotion, the first thing to do is to name the emotion, whether it’s frustration, anger, sadness or jealousy. By simply labelling the emotion, you helping your toddler to understand what they are feeling, at a time where they may not be able to recognise the feeling themselves or may not have enough emotional experience to be able to label it themselves.
For example, “the park is closed today and you’re disappointed. I understand” or “I see you’re struggling with your jigsaw and you’re feeling frustrated.” Make sure that your tone is non-judgemental, so that it feels factual rather than offering a solution. If it isn’t clear what emotion your child is feeling, you might simply acknowledge that they’re experiencing some big feelings.
Let the emotion be
Your child needs time to process their emotion and it takes their brain time to do this. Wait it out without trying to distract them, no matter how tempting it is. You can ask your child if there is anything you can do to help, such as a cuddle or a hand on their back, but they may prefer to be left alone.
Your child will let you know when they have finished processing their emotion and are ready to move on. Your job at this point is to remain present.
Talk about the emotion
You can support your toddler in observing their emotion so that they’re able to identify it themselves the next time it occurs. Wait until your child has fully calmed down and finished feeling the emotion before you do this. You might even wait until later when you’re cuddled up on the sofa or sat down for dinner.
Ask your child how the emotion felt and where in their body they felt it. Was it a tightness in their shoulders, a pounding in their hearts or a funny feeling in their stomach? Understanding what the feeling felt like will help them to recognise it more easily next time.
Then, move on to talking about how they think they could react to that feeling. Often a feeling needs to run its course and its important to remind your child that this is normal and to let their body feel the way it needs to.
You can also ask if there’s anything they’d like you to do next time they experience that emotion. Again, be prepared to accept it if your child doesn’t want you to do anything.
Be open about your own emotions
It can be tempting to hide our emotions from our children because we instinctively feel like they need sheltering. However, talking about your own emotions helps to normalise feelings and will give your child the security to feel able to talk about their own emotions in the future.
For example, “I’m feeling very happy that we saw grandma on our walk” or “I’m feeling angry that the plate smashed.”
You don’t need to confine this to the overwhelming emotions – all emotions are valid and important. Think of yourself as an ‘emotions reporter’, labelling and reporting on emotions as you see them, without judgement or solution.
Take away message
You can support your toddler in their emotions by labelling their emotions, allowing them time to process what they’re feeling and talking about what they felt afterwards. Being open about your own emotions will enable your child to be open about their feelings, without feeling judged.
Emotional intelligence is something which takes years to master. In fact, even as adults most of us will struggle with our own emotions from time to time. However, the benefits of supporting your toddler to begin to understand and cope with their emotions are huge and will continue throughout their life.