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Ask A Therapist: I'd Love Advice on Reacting to My Toddler's Emotions

Parenting, Ask a Therapist
5 min read

Dear Therapist: My 3 year old whines a lot and I am having difficulty showing patience and empathy.  What are some useful ways to deal with this behavior? 

Frame Therapist Selene Burley weighs in: It sounds like this stage has triggered something for you. I would suggest you sit and reflect on different situations where you had that emotional response to your child’s behavior and note any patterns (ex: the behavior happens when child is not on normal routine, you worked over time, etc.)

As a parent not only are you trying to self-regulate but you are also teaching your child to do so. Toddlers are learning to manage big emotions, so it is important to teach them to identify what those feelings are so that they eventually can recognize and cope. You are your child’s guide on self-regulation, so be mindful of what you may be modeling. 

If you find yourself having a hard time identifying emotions, find a chart that you and your child can use to identify your emotions together. Use this opportunity to share something that was frustrating (ex: long line at the store, traffic, etc.) and share how you were able to become calm or practice patience in that situation. Normalizing these types of conversations will help build that safe space for your child and help the child feel seen and understood. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether it is a partner, friend, other family member. If you find yourself struggling that day, tap in someone else that can come in while you take a moment. 

Self regulation for yourself can look like:

  • Identify what emotions you are feeling and remind yourself it will pass 
  • Practice deep breathing
  • Give yourself a second before reacting to the situation. Visualizing a stop sign can give yourself a minute to come back to a regulated state and then you can respond and act
  • Challenge your negative beliefs about the child’s behavior, remember you are not a “bad” parent if your child is having a tough time
  • Find the humor in it, no really. 

I encourage parents to join support groups or talk to friends that have children in order to normalize that in fact some of these behaviors do happen in other households and it is in fact not just your child. 

When children are experiencing these big emotions it is important to help them through it so that they learn that the world is a safe place, if they don’t they might grow thinking they have to deal with things on their own which can later lead to anxiety and/or depression. 

4 things to remember about your child’s behavior:

  1. When they start whining, remind them to use a “regular” voice so that you can understand what they are asking. Model for them what that looks like, remember they might not know they are doing so, they are simply focused on getting the need met at any cost.

  2. Try to explore what they are whining about, present an option to keep them busy related to the situation or provide validation for a frustration they might be feeling. 

  3. Use positive reinforcement instead of taking away a beloved toy as a form of punishment, take the opportunity to reward them when they have completed a task in a calm way. We want to reinforce the good behavior even if they do not get what they want (ex: candy before dinner.etc). They will learn to recognize that behavior gets positive attention and will hopefully be less likely to use the negative behavior next time. 

  4. If all else fails give them a hug when they are really struggling with big emotions. When we utilize love over punishment children tend to respond better. Hugging releases oxytocin which is naturally calming. This is where being regulated yourself will come in handy because you will be able to help the child co-regulate if you are breathing calmly. 

Find what works best for you and your family, and keep an open dialogue with your support system regarding these frustrations or struggles. Parenting can sometimes be isolating so remember you are doing the best you can. 


About the Therapist: Selene Burley, is a LMFT & the owner of Brighter Thinking Therapy. She is located in California and provides telehealth therapy across the state to adults struggling with depression, anxiety, and those along their path to managing stressors that can present during the transitions of becoming parents.

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