Toddlers (ages 12-36ish months) are known for many things, but controlling their emotions is not usually on this list. Faced with sudden independence in some areas (the ability to walk on their own, the discovery of language) mixed with complete dependence in others can be a good recipe for big emotions. Excitement, pride, joy, love, security and delight can be so tightly woven in with fear, disappointment, frustration, anger, and sadness that the emotions are almost impossible to separate and even harder to express. (Caregivers of toddlers may identify with this!)
In children’s ministry, one of our goals is to help our youngest children identify with the stories we read them from our Bible storybooks. This can be difficult in the case of toddlers. They have no concept of time—so “a long time ago” means nothing to them. They are still learning about object permanence—so “far away” is meaningless as well. As is anything they can’t experience with their five senses: if they can’t see it, taste it, touch it, smell it, or hear it, it doesn’t exist.
Their world is so small for toddlers during this part of development, so in order to make Bible stories developmentally appropriate, we have to make an effort to help them connect with something they are very familiar with. This includes the people and things that they love, the events they experience, and the concepts they are learning. That’s why learning about how to name, recognize, and respond to feelings is one of the best approaches to connect to the Bible with little ones. Regardless of your curriculum or lesson plan, here are three quick and easy ways to work discussions about feelings into your interactions with toddlers in a children’s ministry classroom:
- Set up the environment: Make sure to have books and posters available with real people showing emotion (not just cute animals and happy cartoons). Talk about the emotions represented: “Does she look happy or sad?” Learning how to discern the visual cues of emotions is a good start to raising a toddler’s EI (Emotional Intelligence) and paving the way for the connection to the day’s lesson.
- Make story time intentionally emotional: When sharing a Bible story, be sure to point out how the characters are feeling: “When the shepherds saw the angels, they were worried because they didn’t know what they were! Can you show me your worried face? And the angel said that they didn’t have to be afraid because God was going to take care of them—that made them feel happy (or relived, if children are older). Can you show me your happy face?”
- Remember empathy and compassion: All feelings deserve room and respect. The goal, even in church, is never to imply in any way that joy is the only acceptable feeling. Toddlers are discovering a wide range of emotions—just like we are. Avoid using phrases like “don’t cry” or “just be happy.” Instead, help the child identify their feelings:
“I see tears on your cheeks. Are you mostly mad or mostly sad right now? How can I help you?” “I heard you yelling. Sounds like you might be frustrated—is that right? Sometimes when I’m frustrated, I take a little break. Would you like to take a break?”
“When we were singing during worship now, I noticed so many of you had a happy face—when I sing to God, sometimes I am happy and I look like this (big smile) and sometimes I feel sad and I look like this (somber face). We can sing to God when we are happy and when we are sad.”
The better toddlers are connected to emotion, the better they can connect to the Bible, to prayer, and to worship. The time we put into talking about, expressing, and identifying emotions is a wonderful investment.