Emotional development and empathy in toddlers
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Rebecca Chicot PhD
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Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Toddler / Toddler Development & Learning

Emotional development and empathy in toddlers

Your toddler needs a loving, consistent and sensitive parent to act as a secure base from which he can explore both the external real world and his own internal emotional world.
In Short
Empathy can be learned and developed. If you would like to help your toddler develop his empathy from an early age, be open about describing your emotions. This will reinforce what he is seeing in your facial expressions too.

It's important to acknowledge his feelings - for example, 'I know you are really sad that we had to leave the park and I’m sorry but we will come back tomorrow.'

Empathy and the recognition of other people’s emotions

Psychologist Paul Eckmann did years of cross-cultural studies and reported that facial expressions are the same around the world, and mean the same thing across cultures. This is because we all have the same facial muscles and instincts to form (and understand) facial expressions. Babies soon recognise that someone is frightened, without needing to have it explained to them. Also, their own facial expressions change their own physiology and feedback and amplify their own emotions. So when we smile, the muscles used for smiling release ‘feel-good’ hormones in our brain. When we pull a fearful face or a ‘disgust’ face our brain responds as if we are feeling those emotions. Our facial expressions and emotions are inextricably linked. This ability to recognise emotions in other people is impaired in toddlers on the autism disorder spectrum.

Empathy can be improved and developed. If you would like to help your toddler develop his empathy from an early age, be open about describing your emotions (which backs up what his is seeing in your face) and acknowledging his feelings – e.g., ‘I know you’re really sad that we had to leave the park and I’m sorry but we will come back after lunch.’

Milestones of emotional development

By 15 months

  • Still carries teddy upside down by its arms.
  • Throws down items in play.

By 18 months

  • Prefers solitary play, even in a group of peers.
  • Says ‘me do it’ a lot.
  • Can ‘tune in’ to his parents’ anxiety and facial expressions when taking physical risks (social referencing).
  • Has occasional tantrums due to emotional dysregulation.

By 30 months

  • Is impulsive and loves to explore his environment.
  • Probably has a tantrum or gets upset every day.
  • Will help as long as it doesn’t prevent his plans.
  • Plays with other children more readily but doesn’t share toys easily.

By 36 months

  • Starts to enjoy and take part in family meals.
  • Shows care towards babies, younger siblings, pets, and teddies.
  • Co-operates with adults in tasks e.g., chores.
  • Knows they are a boy or a girl (or may first mention gender identity).
  • Has their first friend.
  • Is beginning to display Theory of Mind to see a person’s point of view or feelings.

crying little boy

Emotional development problems

The toddler years may seem a bit early to be thinking about emotional development problems because toddlers experience a rollercoaster of emotions daily, which makes them an unpredictable study. Sometimes it seems that ‘emotional problems’ almost define toddlerhood.

Toddlers need help from their parents to regulate their emotions. Fundamental to their emotional development and emotional regulation is their bond with their parents or caregivers. Toddlers need a loving, consistent and sensitive parent to act as a secure base from which they can explore the external world and their own internal world of thoughts and feelings. If your toddler is securely attached to you (as around 70 per cent of toddlers are), he will be more likely to develop independence and emotional resilience as he grows up. For this to happen toddlers need to feel unconditionally loved.

If you are concerned about your bond with your toddler (especially if you had a tough time after the birth and suffered from postnatal depression) there are lots of things you can do. Your toddler loves you unconditionally and doesn’t judge you. If you’re worried, do get support from your health visitor or GP who will be able to tell you about local services that support parents with PND or severe anxiety, for example. Keep it simple. You don’t have to be Supermum or Superdad. Just spend lots of time chatting face-to-face with your child, sharing books and cuddling. All these activities strengthen your bond and help to boost your confidence and happiness as well as that of your toddler.

In terms of development, there are emotional developmental milestones that toddlers achieve, as well as some abnormal behaviours that might signal a problem. If you’re concerned that your toddler seems very emotionally withdrawn speak to your doctor, who may refer him to your local child development team to be assessed. Similarly, if your toddler seems to act out a lot and display aggression, talk to his doctor or health visitor and they will be able to assess your toddler in this and other overlapping areas of development and behaviour.

Emojis

Toddlers are only just beginning to reflect on their emotions. Even before your toddler is able to articulate how he feels, it can help him to be mindful of and recognise his emotions by talking about events of the day and how he felt during it. Print out some classic emojis of happy, sad, angry, surprised and scared faces. Then you and your toddler can point to the emojis that best describe how you both feel. This helps your toddler to recognise and notice his emotions, which is a central part of mindfulness.

When Tariq turned two, the meltdowns came like clockwork. He used to throw himself on the floor in anger and sadness so often that I learned to react quickly and catch him. It put me off going to playgroups for a while but usually if I cuddled him and stroked the back of his neck he’d calm down and be completely back to happy.
Real mum story. Fatima, mum to Tariq 30 months.
References and further reading

Eckman (2006) ‘Darwin and Facial Expression: A Century of Research in Review’. Academic Press

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DISCLAIMER
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.