Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Toddler Milestone: Real and Fake Emotions

Sometime between ages two and three, your child should start to be able to identify emotions.  Some parents might not see this as a big deal, but for anyone with a challenging or sensitive toddler, you know that emotions are what dictate how your day is going.  Today, I'm going to help you identify your child's emotions, real and fake, and give you a crash course on what to look for in this stage of development so that you can make the most of the great moments and also stop potential problems before they get out of control.

Real Emotions

The "real" emotions are the easy ones to spot.  Pain results in tears, sadness results in tears, being scared results in tears, and happiness is usually recognized by uncontrollable giggles and tiny baby farts.  These are the moments you live for as a parent.  This is what makes life fun!  Pain, sadness, and  being scared give you the chance to love on your child and shower them with affection and comfort.  Happiness and laughter are what make parenthood so special, keep you young, and give you stories to tell.  

My daughter said to me yesterday when I gave her a cookie, "That makes me happy!"  She can now identify and name her emotions.  She frequently says, "That's kind of scary," or "Why is she sad?" when a friend is crying.  Teaching her the healthy way to handle these emotions is my job as her parent.  I must unselfishly allow her to cry sometimes, even though I'd prefer peace and quiet.

If your child cries easily, let them know that it is okay to cry when they are hurting, sad, or scared.  Don't hold these emotions in check.  Let them freely express that.  Enjoy, engage, and celebrate the happy moments too.  If your child is laughing in the other room, go ask them, "What's so funny?" and let them tell you a story.  Happiness (and I suppose sadness too) are best when shared.

Fake Emotions

Some "fake" emotions are much more difficult to identify.  Fortunately, there aren't that many.  Let's start with the easy ones.  Toddlers don't need to fake happiness.  A teenager, however, might fake happiness so that you don't "interfere" with major life changes, friend drama, or bullying.  Thankfully, a toddler can't perceive that sort of benefit yet, so there is no need to worry about it.  

Being scared is a genuine emotion that is difficult to fake, and there are very few instances where it would be beneficial to the toddler.  The most obvious is bedtime.  A toddler saying "I'm scared," makes mommy or daddy come back into the room, turn on the light, and prolong the inevitable sleep the toddler is trying to avoid.  This is very easy to identify as "fake" and you can reassure your child that they are safe.  You shouldn't make a habit of giving in to what they want (you coming back in, turning the light on, and delaying bedtime).

In the same way that being scared is hard to fake, pain is also hard to fake.  But it is even more rare than being scared because kids don't realize that pain is supposed to keep them from doing things.  No toddler is going to fake an injury to get out of playing with blocks.  They want to play with blocks, broken leg or not!  Adults fake injuries, mostly in sports and insurance fraud.  Toddlers don't.

The most difficult "fake" emotion to identify is sadness.  Real sadness sounds like wailing.  Real sadness is accompanied by real tears (although some children are gifted in the area of lacrimal secretion).  Real sadness probably means that your child can't talk while they are crying.  Fake sadness sounds like whining.  Fake sadness is usually a dry cry.  And during a fit of fake sadness, your child will be able to communicate by talking.  Add a toddler's new-found love of logic and reason, and you get statements like, "But I need ______ because I'm crying!"  Fill in the blank with whatever your kid is attached too - a pacifier (guilty), a blanket, ice cream, whatever. 

This type of fake emotion is so hard to ignore.  Our typical parental reflex is to meet our child's need.  The difference is, that at the moment of fake emotion, your child needs tough love.  Don't give in!  Giving in causes bad habits that are even harder to break.  Ever see a mom at the grocery store and her kid throws a fit until he is wailing on the floor and she is completely embarrassed?  Granted, sometimes it just happens, but more often than not, I would be that it's because a child was not given tough love and told "No" when he whined for things.  Now he believes that he has to whine even louder and more aggressively to get what he wants.  If you nip it early, it won't be a problem later.

What about your kids?  Did you ever catch them having "fake" emotions?  Do you remember teaching them how to harness their real emotions?  Share your story in the comments below!


  1. My son is big on delaying bedtime by feigning fear and sadness. It makes me sad (see, I can identify emotions too!) when I have to shut my kid down and deny him because I know he's faking, but I guess that's part of parenthood - seeing through the B.S. and cutting the snake off at the head.

  2. Sadly, the fake emotions are learned based on a parents (or siblings) response. Children are much more intelligent than most people give them credit for. One of a toddlers main "jobs" is to watch others and their reactions. They are always looking to see how we will respond in various situations.

    Even my own house my 3 year old has copied me on a "canned" response. Occasionally, when I am having a bad day my wife will ask, "What's wrong?" I will give a fake smile and point at my mouth and say, "Nothing, see I am smiling." You would think as a social worker i would have known better but alas I did not. My son can be in a bad mood and I will ask him what's wrong and he uses my fake smile and words, "Nothing, see I am smiling!" back at me.

    Being a parent means learning sometimes we have to remember our children are always watching us....sigh


  3. Well, how good is he? I mean, does he really sell it? It could be a "talent" that you push and push and push until he is stuck on a career path that he secretly hates but doesn't want to give up for fear of disappointing you. There's always that route.

  4. You outed my secret plan to educate parents! I was hoping that by being able to recognize these things in their children that parents would begin to recognize them in THEMSELVES. Was I giving us parents too much credit? Would we all have made the connection?

  5. LOL...In my honest opinion...NO!! as a social worker I have found many , many , many parents don't know that. The true problem actually lies that even when you tell them they still don't believe it.

    I didn't mean to out you plan on educating parents...lol...I guess that college degree in Social Work paid off ia little bit....yikes!!! lol


  6. Like an investment banker, or like an actor? His grandfather (my dad) is an actor. Right now, my kid is great at hearing lines a couple of times and repeating them. I actually tricked my in-laws into thinking he could read at 2 when he memorized one of the bedtime stories I read to him and had him recite it while looking at the pages. So...that IS a possible future for him. Come to think of it, he's really good at sleeping and lying. So he'd make the perfect actor. Or politician.

  7. TheRealMattDaddyJuly 27, 2012 at 2:00 PM

    With the way the economy is, we might still be in recession when he graduates. I'd go actor or politician.



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