Building Emotional Wellness in Babies and Toddlers

Kids aren’t born knowing how to manage their emotions. (Your sobbing toddler made that clear after you cut their sandwich the wrong way.) Strategies for developing emotional wellness “need to be taught, just like learning how to add and subtract or tie your shoes,” says Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life licensed therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW.

Just as we must look after our kids’ physical health, we have to support their emotional wellness (and our own). It’s a lifelong project that starts at birth.

dad and infant son bonding

Babies have physical and emotional needs, and when you respond to your infant’s cues, you’re taking care of both. 

Attunement is a fancy word for hearing and responding to a baby’s needs. Your baby cries, you pick them up. They're hungry, you feed them. Attunement “gives [babies] the sense that their needs are met and somebody’s paying attention, which is the foundation for emotional wellness,” says Baumstein.

Similar to attunement is the concept of “serve and return.” When a baby serves up a signal (a smile, a cry, a coo), the parent “returns” a response (smiling back, picking the baby up, talking). Serve-and-return interactions help develop a baby’s brain and strengthen bonds. Just talking to your baby, even if they can’t talk back, is a great way to start building emotional wellness.

Here are some ways you can communicate with your baby: 

  • Make eye contact with your baby, and comment on their sounds and facial expressions.  
  • Speak to your baby in a warm, soothing, sing-songy voice.  
  • Talk about what your baby is showing you whenever they point at something.  
  • Read to your baby to introduce them to new words and phrases.  
  • Talk to your baby about what you’re doing throughout the day. Tell them that you’re changing their diaper, putting on their onesie, strapping them into their car seat, etc.  
  • Name feelings based on how your baby is responding. You could say, “You look happy,” when they smile or, “You seem upset,” when they cry.

mom and 9 month old daughter playing

Attunement is equally as important for young kids as it is for babies. You don’t have to drop what you are doing every time they yell “Watch me!” As long as you’re attuned most of the time, your child will feel safe and supported.

Other ways to support emotional wellness in toddlers and preschoolers:

  • Remember that behavior is communication, and sometimes that comes in the form of tantrums. Tantrums (or meltdowns, as our experts prefer to call them) are a normal part of toddlerhood. They typically happen when a child can’t express themself with words. Teach your child the words to label their feelings: “I know you’re sad to leave the park.” Thank them for calming down (they will eventually) and move on.
  • Talk about your own feelings. It’s important for your child to see that everyone has feelings and that it’s normal to share them with someone you trust. “I feel sad when you hit me. But when you hug me, I feel so happy.”
  • Play! Research has shown that play has all kinds of emotional and cognitive benefits for young brains. Play lowers stress for kids and adults alike, so join in the fun.
  • Teach coping skills as early as you can (it's never to early). After teaching your child how to name their feelings, teach them healthy coping strategies for dealing with those feelings. Even if your child isn’t verbal yet, teach by modeling. Show your child how to use deep breathing or other ways to calm down when they're upset.
  • Head to the library. There are lots of great books that help teach kids to manage their feelings.

dad reprimanding son in kitchen

There is no “right” way to raise your children, but the American Academy of Pediatrics is clear that spanking does not help a child develop emotional toughness. Instead, spanking can lead to a different kind of toughness: A child who is routinely spanked is more likely to be aggressive when they're older. Spanking is also tied to mental health problems such as depression and substance abuse.

According to the AAP, verbal abuse causes the same damage as spanking. Support both your child’s and your own emotional wellness by staying calm and using healthier strategies for disciplining your toddler

18 month old on park slide

Looking after your child’s emotional needs can feel like a never-ending job. Every age brings new challenges but also new opportunities to build resilience (the ability to handle life’s ups and downs). Celebrate small victories! That tear-free shopping trip or departure from the park is laying the foundation for emotional wellness.