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  • Anton Shcherbakov, Psy.D, BCBA

Understanding Infant & Toddler Emotions

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

by Anton Shcherbakov, Psy.D, BCBA




Our emotional experience gives color and depth to our lives, whether we realize it or not. Have you ever noticed that food tastes different when you’re feeling sad or angry? Emotions are such a foundational part of who we are and our day-to-day experience.

Interestingly, we start to experience emotions and their effects from our very first days. Unfortunately, infants and toddlers do not have the language to label and express their emotions effectively. That, put simply, is the origin of the “terrible twos” and the “threenager”. In this blog post, we will explore some of the emotions that infants and toddlers experience and provide tips for caregivers on how to recognize and respond to these emotions effectively.


BASIC EMOTIONS

Some of the most basic emotions that we all - including infants and toddlers - experience include:

Joyous child being pushed on a bike by his dad on a dirt road followed by his mother holding a younger sibling
Joy is an emotion that even babies can feel

  • Joy: Your child will typically express joy through smiling, laughing, and babbling. They may become excited and animated in response to positive experiences such as playtime, being held, or seeing familiar faces.


Baby crying with tear running down cheek
Sadness is one of the first emotions that your child will feel

  • Sadness: Your child might feel sad in response to separation from caregivers or when they are feeling unwell. They may cry, become quiet and withdrawn, or seek comfort from familiar objects such as a favorite blanket or stuffed animal.


Black father and son lying on a bed. Father is calming talking to his angry son.
Young children can express anger when they believe they have been treated unfairly

  • Anger: Infants and toddlers may express anger when their needs are not being met or when they are feeling frustrated. They may become fussy, cry, or exhibit physical behaviors such as hitting or biting.


Young child with wide eyes holding hands to his mouth that are tucked into his sleeves.
Fear is closely connected with Primitive Reflexes such as Fear Paralysis and Moro Reflex.

  • Fear: Fear is an important protective emotion in situations that feel dangerous. For example, infants and toddlers may be afraid in new or unfamiliar situations or when they are separated from caregivers. They may become clingy or cry in response to loud or sudden noises.


Baby with a look of disgust spitting out the food that  he is being fed from a spoon
You can see your child look disgusted when they are tasting something that they do not like

  • Disgust: Toddlers may express disgust in response to certain tastes, smells, or textures. They may make faces or spit out food that they do not like.

It is really important that you as a caregiver can recognize and respond to these emotions.

Doing so will help your children to develop their emotional intelligence and thrive later in life!


HERE ARE SOME TIPS FOR HOW TO DO SO:


Observe your child's behavior

Small children may not yet have the words to express their emotions, but they will often exhibit specific behaviors in response to different emotions as detailed above. Pay close attention to the triggers for the behaviors to better understand what is causing them.


Respond sensitively

Children need sensitive and responsive caregiving in order to feel safe and secure. This means responding promptly and appropriately to your child's needs and emotions. If your child is upset, for example, try to comfort them by holding them, speaking in a calm and soothing voice, and providing reassurance.


Use emotional language

Even though infants and toddlers may not yet have the words to express their emotions, it is important to use emotional language when interacting with them. For example, you might say "I can see that you are feeling sad" or "I can tell you are very excited right now." This helps your child begin to connect specific feelings with specific words.


Provide opportunities for emotional expression

Your child needs opportunities to express their emotions in a safe and appropriate way. This might include providing toys or objects that your child can use to manage their feelings, such as a stuffed animal that they can hug when they are feeling sad.


Be consistent and predictable

Kids thrive on routine and predictability. By establishing consistent routines and responding predictably to your child's needs and emotions, you can help them feel safe and secure.


Conclusion

In summary, infants and toddlers experience a wide range of emotions from a very young age, and it is important for caregivers to be able to recognize and respond to these emotions in a sensitive and appropriate way. By observing your child's behavior and responding sensitively, you can help your child to develop self-regulation skills and set them up for success!


 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Anton Shcherbakov, Psy.D, BCBA is a licensed psychologist and nationally recognized expert on ADHD, anxiety, and autism spectrum disorders. In addition to developing the strategic vision for ThinkPsych, he provides psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults at The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia. His clinical training consisted of both education and mental health settings ranging from special education schools to inpatient psychiatric units. These formative experiences gave Dr. Shcherbakov insight into the needs of high-risk children and his passion for the dissemination of psychological research through ThinkPsych.


Dr. Shcherbakov has co-authored peer-reviewed research on topics that include depression and suicide prevention. He regularly presents to his local community and at national conferences on the treatment of anxiety, ADHD, OCD, and related conditions. He also previously taught at the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology.



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