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Emotions and play: Toddlers

Along with empathy and pride, children start feeling frustrated when they reach the toddler years. In fact, frustration is an emotion you’ll probably see a lot of at this age.

Toddler emotions and play

Toddlers are little people with big feelings that they don’t always have the words for.

That’s where you come in. Because play is the natural way children learn and develop, playing with your toddler gives him a chance to express his feelings and practise managing them.

You can also help your toddler recognise what she’s feeling and why. For example, if she’s sad because her toy is broken, you can name that feeling for her by saying something like ‘I can see you’re sad that your toy is broken. It’s OK – we can fix it’.

Tip: Toddlers watch how you express your feelings, and you can set a good example when you manage your feelings well. For example, you send a powerful message when you respond to your frustrated toddler with calmness and understanding.


What to expect from toddler emotions

Your toddler will probably:

  • become more aware of being an individual at 1-2 years
  • start to feel fear, embarrassment, empathy and envy around 1-2 years
  • begin to be more independent and want to do things without your help
  • be able to wait his turn and control some emotions at 1-2 years
  • start to say how he feels – for example, he might say ‘ow’ for pain or ‘I did it!’ for pride at 1-2 years
  • start to compare his behaviour with other children’s – for example, he might tell you that he waited his turn but others didn't.

Your toddler is also learning about a big new emotion – frustration. Your child is likely to:

  • get frustrated and cry, yell or hit out when she doesn’t get her way
  • not understand why she can’t have what she wants, when she wants it
  • be quite bossy about what she does want
  • find it hard to wait for things or stop playing when it’s time to go home
  • struggle to keep her frustration under control sometimes – you might see some tantrums.

By the age of three years, most toddlers start to feel emotions like guilt and shame. Your toddler needs lots of reassurance and support from you to help him understand these new feelings.


Play ideas to encourage toddler emotions

Play is one of the best ways for young children to practise expressing and managing their feelings. Great ways to encourage this include:

  • playing and sharing with children of all ages
  • imaginative play with puppets, toys or old clothes – for example, your child could pretend to care for a baby doll or bravely rescue toys from a tree
  • singing and dancing – for example, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’
  • messy play with sand, mud or paints – your toddler can happily slap sand or stomp in mud, or make big angry paint strokes if she wants to
  • reading stories that feature characters who are experiencing feelings that your toddler is also going through
  • outdoor play in a park or open space where your toddler can run, tumble or roll around to let out her emotions.

It’s a good idea to let your toddler take the lead with these play activities. But even if your child wants to be the boss during play, you still have an important role in helping your child cope with strong emotions like frustration or disappointment.

Tip: All children develop at their own pace. But it’s a good idea to talk with your child and family health nurse or GP if your child shows no sign of separation anxiety and has no preference for familiar faces by 18 months. Also see your GP or nurse if you’re concerned about any other aspect of your toddler’s development.


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