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.


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.


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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s