“Mummy!”, “I love you”. We associate communication with words and language, and parents cannot wait until they hear that first, sweet word or phrase from their babies. Most babies will say their first word by 12 months. But there’s a secret love language that exists between parents and their babies even before little ones can talk properly, and it’s connected to emotions. When you understand the mechanics of emotional development in childhood, you can easily understand what your baby is trying to tell you, even if it is with few or no words, enhancing the bond between both of you.
The language that comes before words
Babies use many ways to communicate with you without words, starting from when they are born. Infants and young babies cry, smile, coo, squeal and kick their legs to express feelings like sadness, happiness, and excitement. Towards the middle of their first year, they start to babble and will point at people and objects to communicate interest. By their first birthday, most little ones have spoken their first word and by around the 15th month, your toddler might say 3-5 words. Your toddler can also point, pull and grunt to show what they need and might also combine the few words they know with sounds that sound like speech.1
What is interesting to know is that even though your toddlers’ vocabulary might be limited to a few words, they can understand a lot more than they can say. However, this might lead to emotional outbursts and tantrums when your child wants something but cannot communicate this need properly.1 You can effectively prevent such outbursts and decipher your toddler’s needs by being attuned to their emotional language and emotional development at this age.
Your 12–15-month-old toddler’s emotional development
Emotional development in childhood2 involves your little ones learning how to:
- Identify and understand their own and other people’s feelings
- Manage strong feelings effectively
- Regulate behaviour
- Show empathy to others
- Form and nurture relationships
Your little one’s emotional development is also intrinsically linked to cognitive growth and stimulated by personal and environmental influences and experiences. For example, a child who is raised with love, provided with proper nourishment, and grows up in a positive environment is very likely to have healthy emotional development.2
Between the ages of 12 and 15 months old, your child may experience separation anxiety especially if he/she is starting day-care for the first time. This could elicit new emotions like worry and fear. Other new emotions toddlers this age might experience are frustration and anger. As they become more independent, their needs and wants will increase. However, they might not be able to express these properly because of their limited language abilities. Even if they are able to communicate these to you, what they want might not be safe for them, resulting in you saying “no” and them feeling frustrated and angry.
Of course, your toddler will also experience and express positive emotions like joy (when they see you), excitement (a trip to the playground), and empathy (feeling sad when they see someone else crying).
Emotional development markers at this age may include3:
- Needing reassurance with fears and anxieties.
- Starting to feel embarrassment, empathy, and jealousy.
- Being able to control some emotions.
- Becoming upset when you leave.
- Enjoying being cuddled by you or other familiar caregivers, usually responding with smiles and more cuddles and kisses.
- Starting to express feelings with words, for example, saying “ow” when hurt.
- Getting excited about “fun” events, like a trip to the playground or favourite meals.
How to read your toddler’s emotions
The key to understanding what your child is feeling is to look for emotional cues. Understanding when your little one is happy or excited is easy – there will be lots of smiles, vocalisation, and gesturing. Remember to reinforce and reflect those positive feelings.
When it comes to deciphering frustration in your child, it is important to know what the triggers are. For example, your toddler throws a tantrum because you said it is time to go home from the playground. The next time you’re at the playground, you could help your toddler overcome that feeling by telling him/her in advance, “We have to go home soon, but I’m going to give you 20 more pushes on the swing first, okay?” Or you could try distracting by showing something interesting or telling him/her favourite snack is waiting at home.
Your toddler is also more likely to experience emotions like anger and frustration when tired, sleepy, or overwhelmed by loud noises or crowds.
How to encourage emotional development in your child
- Provide unconditional love. The world can be a scary place for toddlers, so making sure they feel secure and loved at all times will strengthen their emotional health and development.
- Show your child how to manage strong emotions when you feel them, and they are bound to emulate you.
- Encourage empathy in your child – be kind to animals and people; show that you care when someone is hurt.
- Playing with other children is one of the best ways for toddlers to practice understanding and managing their feelings and empathy. Even independent play can help nurture emotional development, for example, imaginative play as a vet or doctor where they care for “hurt” patients.
- Look for and read age-appropriate stories that deal with emotions and feelings commonly experienced by toddlers.
1 Gavin, M. Your child’s checkup: 15 months. KidHealth. Accessed on 2nd March 2022 fromhttps://kidshealth.org/en/parents/checkup-15mos.html#:~:text=By%2015%20months%2C%20it’s%20common,understand%20and%20follow%20simple%20commands
2 National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Children’s Emotional Development Is Built Into the Architecture of Their Brains. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. Accessed on 2nd March, 2022 fromhttps://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2004/04/Childrens-Emotional-Development-Is-Built-into-the-Architecture-of-Their-Brains.pdf
3Nebraska Early Development Network. Development Milestones: 13 through 18 months. Accessed on 3rdMarch, 2022 from https://edn.ne.gov/cms/developmental-milestones-13-through-18-months