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The best books to help your small toddler deal with their big emotions

Toddlers may be little, but they sure do come with some big feelings.


Big emotions like anger, hitting + biting, fear, and of course the infamous tantrum are actually a normal and healthy part of toddler development—even though they can be a frustrating (and exhausting!) experience. And as is the case with so many other things in our lives, we've found books to be an amazing way to help our little ones identify and work though all of the big feelings they may be having as they learn to navigate their way through this big, big world.

The next time you're at your wit's end about your toddler's biting or don't think you can possibly endure one more tantrum, take a moment, breathe, and pull one of these books off your shelf for some reading time between you and your tiny human.

We hope you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results!

Hitting + biting

This longstanding classic is a simple, straightforward way to teach toddlers that instead of hitting, hands can do so many good things.

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Told through vibrant, toddler-friendly art and interactive flaps, this book shows little ones that there are better ways to deal with frustrations instead of biting.

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Anger

Everyone's favorite tiger will help your little one understand that sometimes everyone feels mad—but there are lots of things that can help you feel better, too!

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Getting angry can be upsetting to young children; this picture book will help them talk through their anger and learn to identify things they can do about it.

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Sometimes being still and quiet is the perfect solution to all that anger—and this sweet, silly story about self-expression will teach your toddler how to do just that.

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Identifying + managing feelings

Your toddler will love identifying with the many feelings illustrated throughout this bright, kid-friendly book.

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The adorable Duck and Goose use simple text and colorful illustrations to help your little one identify common feelings like happy, sad, and scared.

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Connecting words and emotions can be tricky for toddlers—this book will teach them how.

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Waiting is not easy, especially for toddlers! The beloved Gerald and Piggie will show them that sometimes, though, it pays off.

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This sweet, gentle board book offers toddlers the skills they need to learn follow routine, listen, and be calm.

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Some days you feel silly, or cranky, or even sad, and this book will help your little one understand all of her ever-changing moods!

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Fear + sadness

Little Llama is worried that mama won't come back when she drops him off for his first day of preschool. This rhyming, reassuring story teaches little ones that it's okay to miss mama, but that she always comes back!

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What happens when you're forced to confront your fears? Scaredy Squirrel is about to find out...

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Perfect for the little worrier in your life, this sweet, reassuring story of a tiny mouse who always finds something to worry about will help toddlers learn to manage their fears and be brave.

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Mindful mantras aren't just for adults—they're a great way to calm and reassure kids, too. We love the self-assuring message of this positive, confidence-building book.

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Making mistakes


It's common for toddlers to get really frustrated when they make a mistake. This book does a great job of helping little ones learn about and deal with these common emotions.

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Teaching your toddler that expressing his creativity is better than always getting it right is a beautiful lesson, and this book does an extraordinary job of showing him why.

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This funny, clever book packs a super important message—being okay can really be quite great!

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Toddlers will learn to celebrate their mistakes instead of getting upset by them in this imaginative, interactive book.

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Unstructured play is play without predetermined rules of the game. There are no organized teams, uniforms, coaches or trainers. It is spontaneous, often made-up on the spot, and changeable as the day goes on. It is the kind of play you see when puppies chase each other around a yard in endless circles or a group of kids play for hours in a fort they created out of old packing boxes.

Unstructured play is fun—no question about it—but research also tells us that it is critically important for the development of children's bodies and brains.

One of the best ways to encourage unstructured play in young children is by providing open-ended toys, or toys that can be used multiple ways. People Toy Company knows all about that. Since 1977, they've created toys and products designed to naturally encourage developmental milestones—but to kids, it all just feels like play.

Here are five reasons why unstructured play is crucial for your children—

1. It changes brain structure in important ways

In a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., an expert on the neuroscience of play noted that play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control center responsible for solving problems, making plans and regulating emotions.

Because unstructured play involves trying out different strategies without particular goals or serious consequences, children and other animals get to practice different activities during play and see what happens. When Dr. Pellis compared rats who played as pups with rats that did not, he found that although the play-deprived rats could perform the same actions, the play-experienced rats were able to react to their circumstances in a more flexible, fluid and swift fashion.

Their brains seemed more "plastic" and better able to rewire as they encountered new experiences.

Hod Lipson, a computer scientist at Cornell sums it up by saying the gift of play is that it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected—a critically important skill in today's uncertain world.

2. Play activates the entire neocortex

We now know that gene expression (whether a gene is active or not) is affected by many different things in our lives, including our environment and the activities we participate in. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Washington studied play in rats earning him the nickname of the "rat tickler."

He found that even a half hour of play affected the activity of many different genes and activated the outer part of the rats' brains known as the neocortex, the area of the brain used in higher functions such as thinking, language and spatial reasoning. We don't know for sure that this happens in humans, but some researchers believe that it probably does.

3. It teaches children to have positive interaction with others

It used to be thought that animal play was simply practice so that they could become more effective hunters. However, Dr. Panksepp's study of play in rats led him to the conclusion that play served an entirely different function: teaching young animals how to interact with others in positive ways. He believed that play helps build pro-social brains.

4. Children who play are often better students

The social skills acquired through play may help children become better students. Research has found that the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child's social skills in the third grade. Dr. Pellis notes that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

5. Unstructured play gets kids moving

We all worry that our kids are getting too little physical activity as they spend large chunks of their time glued to their electronic devices with only their thumbs getting any exercise. Unstructured play, whether running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on commercial play structures in schools or public parks, means moving the whole body around.

Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the development of Type 2 diabetes—a condition all too common in American children—by increasing the body's sensitivity to the hormone insulin.

It is tempting in today's busy world for parents and kids to fill every minute of their day with structured activities—ranging from Spanish classes before school to soccer and basketball practice after and a full range of special classes and camps on the weekends and summer vacation. We don't remember to carve out time for unstructured play, time for kids to get together with absolutely nothing planned and no particular goals in mind except having fun.

The growing body of research on the benefits of unstructured play suggests that perhaps we should rethink our priorities.

Not sure where to get started? Here are four People Toy Company products that encourage hours of unstructured play.

1. People Blocks Zoo Animals

These colorful, magnetic building blocks are perfect for encouraging unstructured play in children one year and beyond. The small pieces fit easily in the hands of smaller children, and older children will love creating their own shapes and designs with the magnetic pieces.

People Blocks Zoo Animals 17 Piece Set, People Toy Company, $34.99

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This article was sponsored by People Toy Company. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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If there's anyone who needs a nice spa day, it's parents. But booking a day at the spa isn't so easy when you also have to find and pay a babysitter.

A business owner in Los Angeles came up with a solution: Trina Renea, the founder of Spa Lé La, added free childcare (by a CPR-certified nanny) to her spa's menu, offering the service to any parent who needs a massage or a facial, or any of the spa's other stress-busting services.

If you've got more than one child at home, the first child is free, and each one after is just $6 for the whole duration of mom or dad's spa visit, HuffPo reports.

Renea recognized that for a lot of parents, a quick 15 or 30 minute appointment for a wax or a manicure just wouldn't be worth all the effort it would take to get the kids ready and then into and out of the car, so she added 30 minutes of "lounge time" that parents can take before or after their appointment, so mama can just chill for a bit.

If lounge time isn't relaxing enough for you, you can also spend an extra $40 for another 25 minutes in a totally comfortable nap room.

This kind of parent paradise could only have been thought up by a fellow parent. Renea is a mother herself, and she understands that a lot of parents feel guilty about prioritizing their own self-care. That's why she added cool classes to the childcare component: Kids can participate in art, music or yoga sessions while mom or dad is away. There's nothing to feel guilty about at all. "If they feel like their child is getting a class, then it makes them feel more comfortable," she told HuffPo.

The spa also offers services for expecting parents, like prenatal massage, belly facials, and even labor stimulating massage for those 40-week mamas-to-be who are understandably over being pregnant and just want to meet their little one.

Whether you have a child on the way or a couple of them keeping you up at night, this spa's menu sounds like the perfect way for mama to enjoy some me time.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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While scrolling through Pinterest the other night, I paused on a picture of a wine glass with a decal that said: “this is my me time." I'm not typically a fan of the gear that seems to accompany wine mom culture. But, at that moment, after a long, imperfect day of my own, there was something in that message I could appreciate: At least it was acknowledging moms need time for themselves.

I realized that, for better or worse, joking about being a wine mom is a palatable code for saying “this is hard." That feeling is one just about every parent experiences, often on a daily basis—but it can still be hard to admit, lest we be accused of not appreciating motherhood enough.

This silence does a disservice to us all, especially now that moms "work" an average 98 hours per week (regardless of whether you go to an office) and often don't reach out when they need more help.

The problem comes when the “solution" to the challenges of motherhood is distilled into the simple symbol of a wine glass. And along the way, the culture seems to have become a parody of itself, complete with bottle-sized stem glasses and t-shirts that say things like “they whine, I wine."

Therein lies both the strength and weakness of wine mom culture: It offers an important counter to the societal expectation that moms should be able to do it all, all the time, with a smile on their faces—despite the very real emotional, financial and sociological challenges that come with parenthood. But while wine mom posts may be the vehicle for saying this, wine itself is not the silver bullet to our self-care needs.

The rise of the #winemom

As anyone who watched Betty Draper stir her nightly cocktail on Mad Men knows, alcohol brands have been keen on moms for decades. Now wine seems to be cornering the mommy market: A 2016 survey from Wine Spectator showed that millennials drank 42% of the wine enjoyed in America—with women accounting for two-thirds of high-frequency wine drinkers (meaning those who drank wine weekly) under 30 years old.

"Highly involved female wine drinkers are mostly millennials, are more often urban educated professionals and more ethnically diverse than the typical female wine drinker," said the Wine Market Council in a press release on the findings.

With the average American mom getting less than one hour of alone time per day, every moment of self-care precious. And when those opportunities present themselves, let's be honest, it can feel hard to get motivated to do anything elaborate. Enter: The simple act of uncorking a wine bottle and sitting down on the couch.

But unlike Betty Draper drinking alone, millennials can now broadcast it: That 2016 survey found 50% of millennial wine drinkers shared pictures or posts of their pours on social media, which furthers the sense that frequent drinks are just the norm.

This has also given rise to the wine mom social media community, with a handful of pages related to parenting and wine racking up hundreds of thousands of fans. Among these groups and posts, the common theme isn't just vino, but also venting about parenthood in general—something that still feels very taboo to discuss offline.

"There are still so many topics that seem off-limits because of social media and the backlash you could receive from it," says Angela Principe, who started the Instagram page Mommy's Wine Time in 2016 and now has more than 30,000 followers. "Some days are so crazy that you think, 'I really couldn't make this up.' I like to highlight those days. Those are the days that moms can actually relate to and be thankful that they aren't the only ones going through it."

Moms need more self-care—and support

When Michele Neskey is done with her workday as a physician's assistant, finishes the consultations she does with clients as a health coach and puts her daughter to bed, she doesn't feel an ounce of guilt about pouring a glass of red wine.

She also doesn't have any shame in publicizing her evening drink on social media—even if others have been taken aback. "I've had people comment or message me and say, 'Here you are telling people to live a healthy lifestyle, and you're posting your mojito on Facebook?'"

Surprising as it may be to see a health coach post about drinking on Instagram or her blog, Neskey tells Motherly that being a self-proclaimed "wine mom" is really just about letting others know it's okay to admit when motherhood is challenging.

"It's not really so much about the wine itself, although I do enjoy drinking wine," says Neskey. "It's a moment I can take for myself and say it's been a great day or it's been a horrible day, or I just need a minute to relax."

Having people with whom you can feel able to share your full range of emotions is also essential, Erin Barbossa, a licensed master social worker, tells Motherly.

"Being comfortable about talking about the struggle of motherhood without judgment is all about building relationships built on trust and authenticity," Barbossa says. "Sometimes we discredit or invalidate someone else's struggle by bringing up the joys or unconditional love that comes with motherhood."

For many people, the wine mom community seems to offer this safe space where you can vent without fear of someone saying, "But it's all so worth it!" The problem arises when the digital community or nightly glass of wine is seen as a replacement for personal relationships or substantive self-care alternatives.

"It's interesting that 'wine time' is more socially acceptable than healthy forms of self-care like yoga, massages and therapy," Barbossa says. "Being in community with other women and moms can feel restorative, but checking in with yourself about 'is this nurturing and restorative? Or am I numbing?' is a good place to start."

Registered psychologist Dr. Melanie Badali is also less convinced of the merits of wine mom social media posts in particular. "Using humor to connect with others and foster a sense of belonging or group membership can be beneficial," Badali says. "However, doing it in a way that promotes risky use of alcohol is not helpful."

According to current guidelines from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as an average of one drink or less per day for women. But with oversized wine glasses adorned with "mommy's sippy cup" and memes that say things like "the most expensive part of having kids is all the wine you have to drink," it may seem like drinking moderately doesn't grant you admittance to the wine mom club.

Remember that wine isn't the 'solution'

Jody Allard, a mother of seven, tells Motherly she isn't necessarily opposed to others drinking in moderation. But the experience of being in a relationship with an alcoholic led her to cut drinking from her own life and become more mindful of how she unwinds.

"I decided to try to stop worrying about other people's problems and to start really focusing on myself. That led me to therapy, where I began to work through some of my own issues and establish healthier methods of dealing with stress," Allard says. "I was committed to being healthy and setting a good example for my kids, and part of that included functional ways of coping with stress and modeling self-compassion."

To Allard, the biggest problem with wine mom culture is that it may hold people back from seeking the emotional support they really need. She adds, "What concerns me about this approach is that it's specifically setting out alcohol as a solution to your problems and a method of self-care."

In Badali's view, there should be more emphasis on the healthy middle ground "somewhere between super moms and wine moms." She says, "We need to be creating a culture where you can ask for help and take breaks without feeling guilty rather than one that promotes alcohol use as a source of identity, belongingness and reward."

For that reason, it's worthwhile to see the good represented in wine mom culture: It presents a chance for people to connect. It's a way for us to give ourselves a break. And it's an acknowledgment of the fact that some days are harder than others.

But perhaps the best takeaway from the popularity of wine mom culture it is that we should all do a better job of validating each other's experiences with motherhood—whether over a glass of wine, a cup or coffee or no drink at all.

[Originally published on April 4, 2018]

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By Rebecca Young

Last year Fortnite invaded my middle school classroom—as I believe it did to middle school classrooms across the country. Students who were usually on task and high-performing were nodding off and "forgetting" to do their homework. The morning conversations about how late they stayed up or who was the last man standing became part of our early morning check-ins.

Then the phone calls with parents started. Over several months, I had numerous telephone and after-school meetings with parents concerned about their kids' performance. When I brought up screen time, there were a range of reactions. Some parents seemed oblivious as to what their children were doing after hours, some didn't know how to rein in screen time, and some thought they had it all under control, but clearly did not.

I get it. I'm not just a teacher. I'm a mom who struggles with screen time, too. I spent last summer trying to keep my own middle school daughter unplugged in the rural English countryside. After the first week, when the iPad started appearing little by little, I tried to use my own advice—"However much you read is how much screen time you get"—and reasoning, "Make sure you balance your learning games with your other games." But then I'd hear my daughter yelling at a friend who'd just left her online game, and I'd feel like I'd lost the battle.

The thing is, I'm not anti-screen. I've seen technology bring some amazing teaching moments to my classroom and to my own life.

One student, whom I could never get to write a complete sentence on paper, wrote the most heartfelt poem about how he "nearly won" in Fortnite. It became his breakthrough, and he hasn't stopped writing since. Other kids made parallels to the dystopian books they were reading and wrote very poignant compare-and-contrast papers to prove their points. And, far away from her friends in the United States, my daughter was able to stay in touch with her friends online, keep herself occupied with Roblox, and feel a part of pop culture by watching every Miranda Sings video ever made.

Those breakthrough moments of connection, creativity, and critical thinking are what I strive for as a teacher and a mother. What it tells me is that however parents handle the management of their kids' screen time, it really does have to be a balance. And knowing middle school kids as well as I do, I know that they aren't always able to shut down Fortnite or YouTube without the guidance and support of their parents.

I've also discovered that tech is never going to be a one-size-fits-all thing. What works for some kids will not work for others. Finding what is best for your family can involve a bit of trial and error.

These are the strategies that worked for many of my parents last year and that I'm sure I will be trying with my middle schooler this year:

1. Be present

Know what your child is playing and when. That seems simple, but it is so important. So many of my parents last year had no idea that their child was staying up until all hours in the morning playing games. I heard more than once, "I have never had to worry about their screen use. They have been so good up until now." I remind them that this is middle school, they are not bad kids, and they are just testing the boundaries—so set them!

2. Control the Wi-Fi

I touched base with some of my parents after their children made improvements in class, and I found that they had put in place simple household internet controls. The kids had passwords to access the internet, and the parents put a time limit on when the password could be used. Please note that a few of my tech-savvy kids confided that they were able to "override" this function.

3. Remove the temptation

Some families took all screens out of the children's bedrooms and stored cellphones in a locked charging box until morning. This might seem extreme, but I know for at least one of my students this worked. He was struggling socially and trying so hard to fit in with a certain crowd. He later acknowledged that he needed help beyond the gaming community.

4. Use parental-control apps

I've had students tell their parents they have online homework to do and then end up playing a game instead. Parental-control apps can help, but it takes some research to find the right one for your needs. Making the homework space at the dining room table or another central location can make it easier to keep an eye on kids, too.

5. Find a balance 

Kids need downtime. I have these hormonal, opinionated, stressed-out middle schoolers for two hours a day, and I push them. I know that the other teachers at my school also carry high expectations. Finding time to completely unplug is important.

One parent told me today that they have a hard rule of no screen time except for homework on weekdays, and the way to lose weekend play time is by breaking that rule. I personally allow weekday screen time, but I reserve the right to change my mind.

Originally posted on Common Sense Media.

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