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Strengthening Emotional Development

We’ve all seen it coming… the toddler tantrum! A toddler or preschooler vocabulary is limited and often they are frustrated by not being able to communicate their needs, what’s upsetting them or even how to tell you they are happy or love you. Add in a developmental delay or emotional or behavioral challenge and your child’s patience, as well as your own, may be tested.

When your child is being challenging, it traditionally could mean they can’t figure out how to express their feelings appropriately through emotional development. Challenging behavior can test your own patience and your child will take their cues – verbal and non – from you. Learning to cope with feelings will happen naturally as the child’s vocabulary develops, but what happens when there is a developmental delay in their language milestones? Often children on the autism spectrum also have delays in emotional or social development.

There is a common misconception that children with autism are void of emotion. This is completely untrue. Often they just don’t know how to show their emotions, or don’t know how to show them in an appropriate manner. It can also be hard for children with ASD to recognize different emotions expressed by others. How can you help your child learn to express their feelings appropriately or recognize when someone is expressing different emotions? Here are a few tips you can try. Remember, every child is different and while some may work, others may not. The key to success is patience and consistency. Keep working with your child to find which methods work best for them.

  • Use pictures or cartoon flashcards featuring different emotions and give them an example: “Here’s a picture of a little girl like you and she’s smiling, she must be happy,” or “this little boy is crying, he is sad.” Then give an example of when your child might experience that emotion. “Do you remember when you saw the little puppy, you were smiling and happy because the puppy gave you a kiss.”

  • Be responsive. When your child is sad, address it directly and clearly. “You are crying and sad, can you tell me what makes you sad?” Also be aware of their surroundings, is your child working on a puzzle and can’t get the pieces to match – you will be able to further identify your child’s true emotion – is your child truly sad or is he or she frustrated. Talk them through their problem and ease their anxiety.

  • Show empathy, but also offer appropriate criticism or alternatives to outbursts. If your child is frustrated, get on their level, maintain eye contact and speak directly and clearly. “It’s okay to feel upset, but it’s not okay to throw your puzzle.” By acknowledging their concerns and giving them an appropriate example of expressing their emotions you will help eliminate some emotional outbursts.

  • If your child is in the middle of an outburst, get their attention. You may need to do so in an exaggerated way, but by distracting them enough to get calm them down you can then address the emotion they are trying to deal with.

  • Get help. There are fantastic support groups, support specialists and interventionists all available to not only help your child, but to help you as well.

Set realistic expectations. Children on the autism spectrum can learn to be more emotionally in-tune, but even with time and teaching, they still tend to use them less than other children. To learn more about programs available through the Allen County Board of Developmental Disabilities, call: 419-221-1385 or visit


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