Supporting the Development of Managing Emotions

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Article - Supporting the Development of Managing Emotions
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Managing our feelings can be a challenge. This skill takes time to develop, and babies are in the earliest stages of this development. Just as our moments of stress are real and important in our world (for example, a challenge with our child or partner, a financial hardship, a disagreement with a friend), babies’ moments of distress are real and important in their world (for example, not being able to reach a desired toy, or a caregiver leaving the room). By developing a felt sense of our own moments of stress, and by feeling what happens in our bodies and how hard stressful moments can be, adults can develop more understanding and compassion for what babies are experiencing―the raw vulnerability and tenderness of the world of emotions.

While caring for babies and toddlers, adults are also experiencing and regulating their own emotions. Perhaps these emotions are related to their personal lives, or perhaps they are related to what is happening in the group care setting. Caring for young children can stir up strong feelings in adults, which are linked to personal values, experiences, and beliefs, both unconscious and conscious. The caregiver is affected by the child’s emotional experiences, and the child is affected by the caregiver’s emotional experiences.

A Caregivers’ Critical Role

Healthy social-emotional development for babies and toddlers occurs through warm, positive, and secure relationships with caring and nurturing adults. Emotional development begins early in life and is a critical aspect of development that is firmly tied to all other areas of a child’s growth and development. In child care settings, infant/toddler caregivers play an important role in supporting babies and toddlers as they develop the capacity to positively experience, manage, and express emotions. Acknowledging and understanding that babies are not born with the ability to understand and manage their feelings is critically important, and they need supportive adults to help them grow and develop in this area.

Supporting the Development of Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation can be defined as “the developing ability to manage emotional responses, with assistance from others and independently” (California Department of Education, 2009, p. 29).

Starting at birth, babies typically have some initial abilities to regulate their emotions, such as turning away, bringing their hands to the midline, crying, or falling asleep. At the same time, they need support from the caring and nurturing adults in their lives to help them coregulate strong or overwhelming feelings.

Babies’ and toddlers’ ability to regulate their emotions changes as they go through dramatic developmental shifts in these early years. For example, young children move from turning away from distress to seeking out a comfort object when upset, to asking for specific support before an upsetting event occurs. Over time, and with the support of responsive caregivers, babies and toddlers develop an increasing ability to manage their emotional responses to their environments, both on their own and with support from others

Caregivers may observe the following growth of emotional regulation in babies and toddlers:

In child care settings, caregivers can support babies and toddlers as they develop emotional regulation by doing the following:

  • Playing games, singing songs, and reading books about emotions (for example, “If you are happy and you know it …”) 
  • Reflecting on and positively expressing your own feelings 
  • Acknowledging, labeling, and talking about babies’ and toddlers’ emotions 
  • Staying close and comforting children when they are experiencing and expressing strong or overwhelming feelings 
  • Empathizing with facial gestures and calmly mirroring what children are feeling and expressing 
  • Modeling positive relationships between adults in the care setting and with other children 
  • Keeping a consistent routine (when very young children know what to expect, they are better able to practice regulating their feelings and even some behaviors)

As a caregiver of babies and toddlers, you play a critical role in supporting their emotional development. Through your nurturing, secure, and responsive relationships, and the welcoming and inclusive environment you create for them, you can help very young children do the hard work of developing the emotional wellness and competence they will need for the rest of their life.


California Department of Education. (2009). California infant/toddler learning and development foundations.