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Teaching Toddlers About Emotions

Before they can talk, children express their feelings through their actions: They'll cry, or grin, or kick their legs. When they're toddlers, they start to understand why they feel the way they do, and to name their emotions, says Hyman Tolmas, M.D., clinical professor emeritus of pediatrics at Tulane University. These milestones are important, because when a child can recognize an emotion for what it is, he'll be better able to handle it: For instance, saying "I'm mad!" is preferable to hitting or screaming.

To help your toddler learn about feelings, try these tips from Heidi Feldman, M.D., of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh:

PUT A NAME TO FACES When you see someone smiling (in person, on TV, in an illustration), say, "She must be happy." Do the same for other facial expressions.

LABEL HIS FEELINGS When your child expresses an emotion, name it: "You must be sad because you're crying," or "I can see you're glad to be at the park."

EXPRESS YOURSELF Let him know what you're experiencing. Tell him, "I feel proud when I've finished my work," or "I'm sad that it's raining and we can't go outside."

When describing your toddler's emotions or your own, be honest and clear. If your child says he's angry, don't tell him he shouldn't be; if you reprimand him for something, don't turn around and claim you're not really mad. Both messages will confuse him.

LISTEN UP As your toddler is learning to identify his feelings, encourage him to talk about them. It's important to take the time to hear him out  -- whether he's excited about an upcoming playdate or concerned about a trip to the doctor. The more practice he has saying what he's feeling, the better he'll be at identifying his emotions, and the less likely he'll be to act out the negative ones.