Guide to Kids' Moods
By Alison Bell
When your toddler's bursting with emotions, he usually can't express them verbally. You don't have to remain in the dark about how he's feeling, however — just watch him play. "Because a toddler unconsciously communicates his experiences, conflicts, and emotional state through play, you can get a good sense of what issues he's dealing with this way," says Pete Stavinoha, Ph.D., a child neuropsychologist at Children's Medical Center in Dallas.
Some typical play scenarios, and what they can tell you about what your child could be thinking:
Type of play Taking care of a doll or stuffed animal that gets "hurt" and making it feel "all better."
Possible meaning Your child may be imitating you, which reflects that he loves and depends on you. He may need a little extra TLC for some reason and so he's giving the doll the comfort he wishes he were getting, says Stavinoha. Or he could simply be reenacting an actual experience he's had or seen someone else handle.
Type of play Banging cars, toys, or other objects together.
Possible meaning He might just love the clamor, but he could also be relieving a conflict he had with you, your spouse, a sibling, or a playmate. "Through expressing the anger, he becomes more comfortable with it," says Stavinoha.
Type of play Pretending to eat a cookie or doing something else you told him not to.
Possible meaning He may be rebelling, but chances are, this is just a healthy way for him to deal with his disappointment, says Michael Malone, Ph.D., associate professor of early-childhood education at the University of Cincinnati. Instead of crying or throwing a tantrum, he comforts himself by playing make-believe about what he wasn't allowed to do in real life.
Type of play Scolding and/or punishing a doll because he says it has done something wrong.
Possible meaning By imposing some limits on his playthings, he's acknowledging — and, to a certain extent, accepting — the limits you place on him.
Type of play Pretending to be Superman or another superhero.
Possible meaning He's feeling confident and powerful and is asserting his control over the world. "Imitating heroes can be a real boost to a child's self-confidence," says Stavinoha.
Reprint: Parenting Magazine, November 2001
"If a child washes his hands he could eat with kings" African Proverb