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20th Feb 2019

3 ways to help your ‘threenager’ to understand their feelings

Sharyn Hayden

The term ‘threenager’ has been coined in recent times to describe a willful toddler who displays between seven and eighty-two different emotions in any given minute.

Ok, that’s a (slight) over-exaggeration, but you know what I’m talking about. One moment, you are being kissed non-stop in front of random strangers and told how beautiful you are by your four-year-old and the next, he is throwing his bowl of Rice Crispies at your head because he’s decided that he hates spoons.

Moody like a threenager, huh?


Our small kids don’t necessarily have the vocabulary or the emotional maturity to always correctly identify how they are feeling and translate that into an appropriate response.

As their parents, it’s our job to understand what’s going on: we know our kids just might not be feeling well but can’t pinpoint it, or are over-tired and what they really need is a good rest.

We also know that they have yet to learn that they can’t punch someone in the arm because they’ve taken their favourite toy and that we have to take some time to teach them that.

So when we’re done cleaning up the Rice Crispies from off the walls, what can we do to help our kids to understand and express their emotions?

1. Have a heart-to-heart

Once he has calmed down, Jacob and I have a big chat about his epic meltdowns. I might wait until the next morning if I feel as though he could do with the benefit of a night’s sleep before attempting to reason with him. I make sure to discuss the incident and try to explain a better way of reacting or behaving the next time. I find it’s really important to HIM to have the space to explain himself to me and we come to a deal for better behaviour and hug it out.


2. Engage them in a ‘feelings activity’

With small kids, you can concentrate on a few emotions that you know they understand, for example; happy, sad, angry, surprised and scared. Find photos online or draw pictures on cards of images representing each emotion, three to four of each. Start with showing your kid each ‘face’ and have a discussion about it – what does ‘surprised’ look like, how do the eyes and mouth look? When you have discussed each of the five emotions that you have chosen, you can then set your kid the task of grouping all sad faces together, happy faces in one pile, sad in another etc.


(Pic via

3. Read some books about feelings

You can choose any of your child’s favourite books to discuss feelings with them. Our current favourites are Love Monster & the Last Chocolate and The Day the Crayons Quit. There are several discussion points about feelings in each that you can jump on so just take your time to ask questions here and there such as ‘Do you think that was a nice thing to do?’ or ‘You’d share your treats with your sister, wouldn’t you?’


Some of the proven benefits of having a child with well developed emotional literacy are:

1. They are likely to cope well with stress

2. They will be good communicators and able to disagree with another person in a respectful way

3. They will be equipped to mediate with other children and their peers

(Via the HSE ‘Healthy Ireland Smart Start Programme’)