Using Signs to Teach Your Toddler About Feelings

As a counselor, I spend a lot of time teaching kids how to identify and communicate their feelings. So when my son Max (14 months) was having a meltdown this weekend, I realized that now is the time to start giving him words (akasigns) to express those emotions. Now is the time to start teaching him there is a word for these feelings he is having and that it’s normal to feel angry, frustrated, etc. So, I opened up my baby sign book and dug out the feelings cards. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not under any fantasies that Max will no longer tantrum or tantrum  any less fiercely, but this is an important first step in teaching my son about his feelings.

I use a book titled Baby Sign Language by Karine Shemel Rosenberg. It comes with colorful flashcards and information on the benefits of signing and how and when to start signing with your baby. Here are the feelings flashcards in this book. You can also see where to purchase this book and see my comments and others at my  Goodreads review.


Applying similar techniques I use when teaching more verbal children about feelings, I can start teaching my young toddler. Here are a few simple things I’ll be focused on:

– Choose which signs you want to focus on, learn them yourself, and get other caregivers (nanny, grandparent, etc) involved. The more exposure to the signs the better.

At the moment he shows the feeling (angry, sad, happy) say and sign the feeling using an empathetic tone.

– At the moment we see others expressing that feeling, especially another child, say and sign the feeling.
– When he is angry, help him learn to calm himself down by modeling a calm state and offering something that may help calm him such as a quiet room, favorite toy, or affection.
– When he calms, tell him “good job calming yourself down.” This sends the message he has control of his emotions.

It is never too early (or too late) to start using these techniques with your child. Their little brains are constantly taking in information and forming connections about their environment and learning behaviors from those around them. Applying these techniques can also take time to get used to, but will be second nature before you know it.

Max is learning his signs quite well these days, communicating his wants and needs to those around him. I am so happy to see when he is able use these signs rather than become upset. If you have been a parent of young children, you understand how frustrating it can be (for baby and you) when they have to fuss because they don’t know any other way to communicate their needs. There is a lot of literature that stands behind the wonderful emotional and psychological benefits of babies learning sign language. I’ll add some resources below to learn more about infant signing.

I have already started teaching these feeling signs and when Max gets the hang of them, I will post a follow up and let you know how it has worked out. If you have already been down this road, I would love to hear about your experience too! is a fantastic  website to check out. They offer a lot of information on signing, free flash cards, and even have video to show you how to do some of the more complicated signs. is also a good resource. There are videos of babies signing as well as an index of words.

For a good book, check out Baby Sign Language by clicking on my Goodreads review on the right hand side of this blog. Just above the Goodreads link, click on my Vodpod link to find videos I like. There is a really good video showing a baby signing for her mom. So cute!

Author: Kim Peterson, MA, LPC-S, RPT

Kim is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Supervisor, and Registered Play Therapist in Dallas, Texas.

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