How Movement Can Help Emotional Regulation in Toddlers

How Movement Can Help Emotional Regulation in Toddlers

Toddlerhood is a rough time for everyone. Your little one is changing fast, growing and learning — but also changing their minds about what they like from one day to the next.

They’ll give you the biggest hug, then slap you right across the face. All while you try to keep your cool and watch your triggers.

Then there are the tantrums. Complete meltdowns where you feel you have no control. And they have no control. It’s a lawless moment of distress in the middle of your grocery store trip. And all you want to do is grab them and run.

We’re sure you’ve read all the tips and tricks for helping your child through tantrums, and those can certainly help. But even better is understanding why tantrums are important to your child’s development. 

YES! These chaotic moments are how your child learns to self-regulate. And when you understand the why, it’s easier to calmly guide them through the moment. Read on to discover the purpose behind tantrums, and also uncover a few ways to minimize the intensity of your child’s next meltdown. 

Your toddler’s movement and sensory needs

Children are taking in a lot of information during their first two years of life. They’re creating neural connections at a rapid pace as they learn to walk, talk, and navigate the world. 

But during all this growing and learning, their movement and sensory needs also change drastically. Your new baby needed lots of swaddling and rocking for comfort. You gave them tummy time to help them develop the muscles needed to lift their head and crawl.

But your toddler has tackled all of that and now they need more. They’re running and practicing jumping (both from the floor and also off your couch and the stairs). They want to push chairs around the dining room or see how many toys they can carry at one time. They want to climb and swing and hang on anything and everything they can reach. And they love roughhousing.

It can be a lot at times, and you may hear yourself saying “no” more than you like. But their brains need all of this input to tackle the next stage of their development. And when they don’t get it, tantrums are more likely to happen. The trick is finding ways to help them fulfill their needs safely.

Your toddler’s emotional needs

Not only does your toddler have a lot of new movement and sensory needs, but their emotional needs are also higher than ever before. One day they scream at you for helping them with their shoes, the next day they insist you do it for them. At breakfast they require the blue bowl for their fruit, then the next week the blue bowl makes them wail. 

And you’re left feeling confused, frustrated, and unappreciated. 

But these moments have a biological source — synaptic pruning. Your child’s brain has taken in a lot of information over the last couple of years, but now it’s time to just keep the important stuff. Without this pruning, your child’s brain would have too much to process before performing tasks. Learning would slow down and processing would happen much more slowly.

But, because your child’s brain has recognized the important bits, it’s driving your child to practice it. And practice it, and practice it. While also giving rise to a change in likes and dislikes. This is the time of “I do it”s. And when they don’t get that chance, either because we’re running late or it’s just easier to do it ourselves, their brain stops getting the input it needs, and they rebel. 

Fun fact — this process of synaptic pruning happens again in adolescence, so consider this all good practice for those early teenage years.  

Why your toddler’s meltdowns are important

All of these changes and unmet needs can add up until your child is exploding with emotions. But, even if you do everything right, meltdowns will still happen — because they’re a major part of your child’s development. Tantrums are their form of emotional regulation. 

Think about when you’re sick. You may curl up in a fetal position with your blanket and a heating pad. Or when you’ve had a rough day at work, maybe it helps for you to go sweat out your frustrations. These moments are providing you with the sensory input you need to relax and center. 

But as we shared above, your toddler’s needs are different. They are driven by their movement and sensory requirements. So when their emotions peak, they need these big gross motor and pressure movements (like throwing themselves on the floor) to bring them back to a state of calm. 

Though it doesn’t feel like it in the moment, those excruciating minutes of screaming, stomping, and throwing their body around are actually helping them recenter and calm down. 

What you can do during your toddler’s next meltdown

Now that you know the important role your toddler’s tantrums play, it can feel a (little bit) easier to deal with them. Of course, they’re still stressful to watch, and can bring up big feelings for you too. 

The next time your toddler is melting down, here are a few things to keep in mind to make the experience easier for both of you.

  • Stay calm
  • This is the hardest, but also the most important, thing to do. When your child is screeching and throwing punches, take a deep breath and calm yourself before you react. Remember the important role this fit is playing in your child’s development, and get in the right mindset to ride out the storm.

  • Take them somewhere safe
  • If your child throws themselves around while upset, you may need to pick them up and move them to a safer area. At that moment, they don’t realize the floor is concrete, or they’re up high on a play structure. So give them a calming squeeze and get them somewhere they can flail safely.

  • Get down on their level
  • Towering over your child while they tantrum is intimidating, even if you’re speaking kindly. Try dropping down to their level. Then sit on the floor a few feet away to wait it out. Let them know you’re there for them when they need you. And before you know it, they’ll be in your arms asking for a hug.

  • Exude empathy
  • Though the trigger of their tantrum may seem ridiculous (especially if you gave them exactly what they asked for), it is very real to them. As you take your deep breath, try to relate to how they’re feeling in that moment. You may not understand why the scrambled eggs they asked for caused this storm, but you can understand the frustration of something not being exactly right. Focus on that and let them know you’re trying to understand.

  • Wait it out
  • This is hard, especially when the screams seems never ending. But do your best not to punish, threaten, or bribe them to get it to stop. They need this time. These difficult moments are creating brain connections that will lead to better self-regulation during their elementary years, and even into their teens and twenties. 

    Try these activities to reduce toddler tantrums

    There’s no way to completely stop toddler tantrums — and we wouldn’t want to. They’re a crucial part of your child’s development. But here are a few activities and movements you can encourage to minimize the severity of their next meltdown.

    Climbing and hanging

    Toddlers love to use their developing muscles to climb. The pressure their bodies feel when working against gravity can be incredibly soothing. But most homes don’t have safe climbing spaces (how many times have you found your kid scaling your countertops), and it’s not always possible to get to the playground. 

    To give your kid a chance to practice these skills more often, look into some toddler-sized climbing triangles or arches to give them the climbing outlet they need.


    The jolt to a child’s body as they land a big jump is exactly the kind of sensory input they crave. Whether they’re jumping up from the ground or jumping off the couch, the sensation of gravity and the force of hitting the ground is thrilling while also calming to their system.


    Even though your little one isn’t rocking as often in your arms, they still love the back and forth movement of a rocker. An added bonus of a large rocker or rocking chair — they get to use their muscles to initiate the rocking and experiment with balance.


    This one may seem odd, but your child craves this proprioceptive, or deep pressure, input. It happens naturally during fun, roughhousing sessions. If you’re wrestling around on the bed, try pushing them with firm but gentle pressure into the mattress. Another great option is safely wrapping them up like a burrito in a blanket or pillow mat. This type of play is great for regulation, especially if they’re experiencing sensory overload.

    Carrying or pushing heavy objects

    Your toddler is working hard to grow their muscles. So let them help you carry in the groceries or move a basket of toys from one room to another. Give them a chance to move around their climber or set up their ramp. Or encourage them to push their kitchen tower around the counter to reach a snack. This hard work has a calming effect that you’ll both enjoy.

    Your toddler is learning something new every day

    With your help, your toddler can master their emotions, but not without a few storms along the way. Follow the tips in this article to help you both through this trying time, and before long you’ll have an emotionally mature elementary kiddo who knows how to self-regulate. 

    Of course, we all lose our cool now and again, so give yourself and your child some grace and enjoy this life of love and learning together.

    Thanks for including us in your parenting journey!


    This article was written in collaboration with our resident Occupational Therapist Jessica Ahdout — Portal MA OTR/L. Have a question for our OTs? Let us know in the comments!

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