Promoting Emotional Development in Young Children

Last week my wife and I were grilling some meat on the stove and the room began to get smoky as the marinade caramelized.  Then the smoke alarm sounded-- it was a shrill, piercing, high-pitched squeal.  My wife turned up the fan on the vent-a-hood while I made a mad dash to hallway to yank the smoke detector from the ceiling and remove the batteries.  I was not quick enough.

Our two-year-old twin boys began to cry. They stood paralyzed.  They needed to be held.   "What Happened?" was asked and answered repeatedly for the next half-hour.  We reassured them, and the boys parroted back "we're OK" and "it’s OK".   We explained and discussed the benefits of the smoke alarm.  "What happened to the alarm?" played in stereo like a broken record between sniffs and sobs and verbalizations that everyone and everything was doing well. 

"That alarm startled me" I said, finally.  "It startled me, too." one of the boys shared.  That alarm was too loud, it scared me." I said next.  "Alarm was too loud" and "it scared me too." I heard repeated from different directions.  Then, things seemed to calm.

This experience reminded me of the importance and benefit of helping young children put words to ideas and the feelings that go with them. 

My wife and I try to help verbalize feelings when we see a meltdown starting.  “It’s frustrating when you cannot get the blocks to stand up like you want to…” or “I understand that you want to watch Elmo and are disappointed that we can’t do that now.  We can look forward to watching Elmo after lunch…”

It seems rare to find books for young children with engaging characters and storylines that are also helpful for emotional development.  We were very pleased, recently, to find some books with fun stories and colorful drawings that help children process fears, frustrations and anxiety, so I wanted to share the recommendations:

Author Anna Dewdney has written poetically about the experiences and emotions of Llama Llama.  Llama Llama Misses Mama addresses separation anxiety and adjustment.  Llama Llama Mad at Mama deals with frustration management, delayed gratification, and seeing the positive side of a difficult situation.  Llama Llama Red Pajama addresses fear of being alone, patience, and not jumping to fearful conclusions.  All these stories promote secure attachment and confidence.  One of my little llamas asks to read one of these books every night.  Hopefully the little llamas you know will like them too (and learn about emotional regulation in the process).

To learn more about the Llama Llama book series, visit

To learn more about my practice as a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist, vist my website


Andrew M. Portteus, MD, MPH, PA

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