Narrating Toddlers’ Emotional Rollercoasters, and Daily Life

Eli Holmes
10 min readJan 29, 2022

There are tons of weird little tricks that we pick up as nannies and teachers. I’ve taught in Waldorf and Montessori schools and learned different skills from tons of parents.

One thing that I swear becomes a lifestyle as soon as I’m around someone under the age of 5 is narrating emotions and behaviors. I know this sounds a little weird, but I swear, this is the difference between losing your marbles as a parent of a toddler, and coming out the other side.

Narrating Emotions and Modeling Emotional Intelligence

Children are born with tons of skills and without a ton of skills. One thing they have to learn is emotional intelligence. A lot of this comes from modeling what they see around them and their peers.

My toddler used to SHREEK, and scream over the silliest of things. He was super independent at an early age and I certainly fostered that to my own demise. The more independence he was offered up the more he wanted. To the point where if he couldn’t cook dinner with the sharp knives and on the hot stove, at 18 months, well, I had better be prepared for a meltdown.

My mom was around a lot during this point in our lives, and she often would push for the punishment of my son’s responses and reactions to things that just didn’t make sense. He’s screaming because he can’t climb on the counters, ok, a timeout for Dax.

I went about things a little differently, and my mom totally thought I was crazy. I narrated my son’s emotional breakdowns starting at about 9 months old. I can’t tell you how much frustration this caused my mom. I wasn’t punishing him for these overt reactions as he navigated his emotions.

Toddlers are inherently learning feelings and emotions. More often than not their reactions to different things in life don’t match up with how we as adults would feel. My son wanted to throw a plate on the ground, and I wouldn’t let him — ok, full meltdown status was the reaction. And my mom would immediately want me to put him in a timeout or tell him this was bad.

Instead, my first response was always something to the effect of “Oh wow, you’re really mad that we don’t use plates for throwing, let’s find something else for throwing.” I’d help him navigate finding things that are great for throwing and we’d move on.

Removing “No” and “can’t” from our vocabulary

My mom through this narrating my toddler's existence phase thought I was a little out there. Kids needed boundaries and rules, timeouts, and the word no. I erased no from my vocabulary and replaced it with things like “outside voices are for outside, what does an inside voice sound like?”

I’d go about life as cool as a cucumber, knowing that one day all this narration and calmness would pay off eventually. Nannying had shown me that, so I just had to have faith that one day, all this patience would pay off.

My mom meanwhile was losing hair and freaking out at every turn. My toddler was helping me cook eggs, and sometimes we’d lose a few to the dog and the floor. That said, by the time he was two, he was cracking eggs like a pro instead of throwing them on the floor.

Feeding the dog his dinner and being mad the dog ate his dinner…

Dax had this habit of offering the dog some of his dinner or lunch, basically anything he was eating. My dog, Oscar, had a habit of eating anything that remotely looked like food — pine needles and dirt included. So of course when my 65-pound pitbull is offered food, he eats the whole plate worth, not just a little piece—like my toddler was probably thinking.

This proved to be one of the hardest pieces of our day, and I tried to find ways to circumvent the inevitable breakdown — throw the dog in a bedroom, feed the kiddo on the kitchen counter, feed the dog while the kiddo eats. Dax would let the dog out of the bedroom, get off the counter, just do everything he could to thwart my efforts to avoid the inevitable meltdown over Oscar eating the food that Dax offered to him. Typical toddler life problems right?

The day that finally came was probably one of the best days of my life as a parent. I went to feed my kiddo his favorite peanut noodles for dinner, keeping an extra portion in case the inevitable came. He offered the dog some noodles, and of course, the dog at every last one. I braced for impact… Instead, on this day, he turned to me, sniffled a little, and said, “Mommy, I’m mad ‘scar ate my noodles.”

I swear it was like every bit of all the emotions and frustration from each meltdown he had had since he was born just washed out of me. It all became worth the quiet and calm that I worked towards when he’d lose control.

I hugged him, and told him “dude, I’m pretty mad he did too! Let’s get you more noodles. Do you want to eat somewhere else so Oscar can’t get your noodles?” And for the first time of his dog-feeding career, this kiddo said to me “I don’t want ‘scar to eat my noodles mommy.” I put the dog in a bedroom and sat with Dax eating noodles — a big ol’ smile on the kiddos face.

Of course, as soon as Dax went to sleep, I called my mom and told her everything with lots of “SEE I TOLD YOU IT WAS ALL WORTH IT!”’s attached to the end of anything I said. My mom was a little blown away that my ridiculous narration of emotions finally rubbed off on the king of big emotions. Nonetheless, she got to witness this little parenting miracle a few weeks later, and boy did I have a shit-eating grin as she watched my son express his emotions.

Why my son sometimes wants to go outside to make outside noises

Outside and inside voices were a big part of our existence for a while. “Oh wow that’s such a great inside voice,” “oh wow that’s an outside voice, do you want to go outside to use your outside voice?” became regular phrases in our household.

Living on a 3rd story walk-up, I started to regret that question about outside voices. While I could have just not given the option to use an outside voice outside when he wanted to use an outside voice inside, sometimes we just really gotta use our outside voice.

I was cooking dinner one day as my son came running into the kitchen with his shoes, and jacket, and a toy. He threw everything down and started to get his shoes on. They were on the wrong feed, and his jacket might have been upside down, but he grabbed that toy and went to head outside. He was on a mission.

I stopped him and asked, “where are you going?” and he goes “outside so I can use my outside voice!” Well, not exactly the perfect timing because I was cooking, but hey, I’ll entertain this moment, the 30-month-old had gotten his shoes and jacket on, a little haphazardly, but they were on.

Downstairs we went, a robot in tow. He got outside, screamed the Rescuebot theme song with the robot for a few minutes, and went climbing the stairs to go back up to the apartment. I was a little irritated for having to down and up two flights of stairs for a few moments of outside noise time, but hey, it was better than hearing that in our tiny apartment and having our neighbor complain.

Toddlers weren’t given a handbook to their emotions and feelings

The thing is though, kiddos need the modeling and narration to learn about all these big feelings they’re feeling. They weren’t given a handbook when they were born. So what can we do about it as adults? Help them.

As soon as kiddos are born they’re absorbing everything around them. Babies link different sounds to their routines—a certain lullaby for bedtime means that when you hear the lullaby it’s time for bed. Well, why not take the same concept and apply it to our emotions and feelings, or even behaviors…?

One of my favorite things to do with a toddler is to talk about wild bodies. This is a great one for kiddos with younger siblings that they need to be gentle around. When our bodies are wild sometimes we have accidents, right? So when we’re laying down with our 4-month-old sibling is it a great time for our bodies to be wild? Not really. But we could have wild bodies when the babe is sleeping or when we’re far away from the baby.

I try to break these things down into short sentences. A toddler heads towards the baby, jumping and being a little rough. I know what’s coming… “Oh hey! It looks like your body is wild right now.” I might pause for a second… “You’re in a great space for calm bodies. Where’s a great space for wild bodies?” It might take a second, some repetition, and positive reinforcement but even with kids I nanny short term, often they get it in a day or two.

Toddlers are not great with no, or that’s bad, or unsafe. None of that has a lot of meaning. Switching over to labels that give some meaning and reinforcing through models in books and tv are great ways to build some knowledge over their emotions and their behaviors.

Dealing with the meaningless “I’m sorry”’s from toddlers…

One of the most frustrating things I hear from parents is when toddlers enter that phase of meaningless apologies. Saying I’m sorry isn’t something a toddler necessarily understands—apologies, guilt, remorse, these are all big abstract concepts.

When kiddos start to hurt a sibling and show no remorse or understanding is a great time to implement this option. I usually try to explain that when we hurt people we can’t take it away with an apology —does saying “I’m sorry” fix a broken toy?

With kiddos under 3, this might be a little trickier. And often for those under 3, I try to do some prevention with lots of calm and wild body talk, and asking did that feel good, or some toys are for sharing and some toys are not for sharing. Use your judgment of your kiddo and where they are.

So what can you do? I often try to model with other adults or when I do something by accident —or the dog. I drop a toy by accident. Ah, a great time to do some of this work! “Oh gosh Megatron, I dropped you! I’m sorry. How can I fix it?” “Oh, Dax do you know what Megatron said? He said I can fix it by giving a hug and being more gentle with Megatron next time we play.”

It may seem silly to be talking to Megatron about this but, I swear these are the moments that these things matter. When emotions are running high, it’s not like we’re in control and use all of our best skills and knowledge at the moment, so why do we expect kids to be at their A-game when they’re at the height of their emotional breakdowns.

Complimenting toddlers for their outside voices and wild bodies

Complimenting kiddos for wild bodies and outside voices in great places for outside voices and wild bodies is just as important as complimenting kiddos for inside voices and calm bodies. Learning to use the breadth of our emotions and behaviors is so important so why not compliment the great use some of the behaviors we don’t always love.

When you’re outside, model your outside voice and even encourage some awesome outside voices. “Dax let’s use REALLY loud outside voices. How loud is your outside voice?!” Dax uses a loud outside voice, “ Dax, you’ve got a louder outside voice than that!!” I often do the same with wild bodies in good spaces for wild bodies.

If he’s using an inside voice while playing I’ll try to compliment his inside voice. But I often find that if he’s struggling with inside and outside voices some practice often helps too. I’ll ask him “how quiet is your inside voice?” and let him practice, helping him find his quietest inside voice. And then we’ll go outside and practice outside voices, encouraging him to use his loudest outside voice. It’s a great game for a bored kiddo in the car on car trips.

Toys and food are for biting, people aren’t for biting!

So you’ve got a toddler that loves to bite… It’s probably one of the most irritating things as a parent, and one of those things that can send a parent over the edge. I get it, I went through it.

You’re eating dinner with your kiddo and the room is kind of quiet. It’s a great time to offer positive reinforcement of that behavior, biting, in an appropriate setting. “What great biting you’re doing.”

When you’re in the moment of being bit, immediate correction “biting is for eating not for people” and separating you and the kiddo is a great option. Sometimes I’ll say “oh gosh, you’re biting! Does that mean you want to eat food?” And often he’ll say “no mommy! I’ll eat you!” and of course I’ll retort “I don’t want to be eaten! Food is for eating” and immediately remove myself from his personal space.

Also offering up things that can be bit is another great option. I often offer up teething toys. “I’m not for biting! This toy is for biting!” and physically offer up the toy.

Making narration a lifestyle, curving conflict.

I found that by making narration and redirection a lifestyle, I curved conflict with my kiddo. It wasn’t him versus me, instead, it was us walking through it all together. It seemed to make him feel safe, and confident—he was pretty independent, but also willing to tell me things that were a little tricky to handle as a 2–3-year-old.

Instead of life becoming him fearing the punishment, or me frustrated he wouldn’t just go in timeout because he bit me, we seemed to move through the narration or redirection and onto the next thing. And although it was super exhausting and I probably seemed like a crazy person sometimes narrating a toddler’s emotions while going through the grocery store, to watch my kiddo use those same phrases, and grow through the emotions was 100% worth it.