Social and emotional development of toddlers

Ages 1-3 years

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What to expect from toddler emotions

Your toddler will probably:

  • become more aware of being an individual
  • begin to be more independent and want to do things without your help
  • start to say how they feel – for example, they might say ‘ow’ for pain or ‘I did it!’ for pride.

By the age of three years, most toddlers have started to feel emotions like fear, embarrassment, empathy, envy, guilt and shame. Your toddler is also learning about a big new emotion – frustration. They are likely to:

  • get frustrated and cry, yell or hit out when they don't get their way
  • not understand why they can’t have what they want, when they want it
  • be quite bossy about what they do want
  • find it hard to wait for things or stop playing when it’s time to go home.

Your toddler needs lots of reassurance and support from you to help them understand these new feelings.


Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your behaviour and your reactions to feelings and the things happening around you.

It includes being able to:

  • regulate reactions to emotions like frustration or excitement
  • calm down after something exciting or upsetting
  • focus on a task
  • refocus attention on a new task
  • control impulses
  • learn behaviour that helps you get along with other people.

As your baby becomes a toddler he’ll start to develop some basic self-regulation skills. For example, from around two years your child will probably be able to follow simple instructions or rules like ‘Please put your hat on’ and ‘Don’t hit’.

And as they develop, your child will start to follow simple rules even when you aren’t there. But at this age you can still expect that they might break rules in tricky situations, like when it’s hard to share a toy they really want.

Here are some tips for helping your toddler learn self-regulation:

  • Try to model self-regulation for your child – for example, show your child how you can do a frustrating task without getting upset. You could say something like, ‘Wow that was hard. I’m glad I didn’t get angry because I mightn’t have been able to do it’.
  • Talk about emotions with your child – for example, ‘Did you throw your toy because you were frustrated that it wasn’t working? What else could you have done?’
  • Praise your child when he shows self-control and follows the rules. For example, ‘You were great at waiting for your turn’.

Play and friendships

Play is one of the best ways for young children to practise expressing and managing their feelings.

But young children can get very frustrated quickly and often don’t have the words to express how they feel. And your toddler doesn’t yet understand the skills he needs for friendship, like sharing, taking turns and solving problems. The more your child plays with other children, the more likely he is to learn.

Helping your toddler with social skills

You can help playdates go smoothly by setting things up for your child and their playmates. For example, set up games where toddlers can play side by side but don’t necessarily have to take turns. Toddlers usually do well with sandpit play, painting, building with blocks, throwing balls, or playing with dolls and cars.

You can help your toddler start learning and practising social skills by spending time playing together. Through play, you can show them how to be a good friend and play well with others. Try taking turns to add blocks to a tower or to kick a ball, and prompt your child by saying ‘My turn’ and ‘Your turn’.

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