Preschool children grow by leaps and bounds: physically, mentally, and socially. From tears and tantrums to affectionate kisses and uncontrolled exuberance, a preschooler's moods and feelings can be confusing. But there is information that can help parents understand, cope with, and nurture their child's emotional development.
They stand under four feet tall. Their hands and feet are adorably little. They wear small clothes, love tiny toys, and have a favorite stuffed friend that is just the right size for cuddling. But their feelings are so very big.
Preschoolers aged two to five years can have emotions that demand attention, validation, and resolution. They are intense, entangled, confusing, and surprisingly sophisticated. They produce tears and then suddenly, smiles.
Buckle up. You are about to tumble over the rough and wonderful terrain that is the emotional life of a preschooler.
The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed that emotional development begins at birth. This is no surprise to a parent desperately trying to comfort a squalling, angry, red-faced newborn. But before age two, a child's emotions are mostly reactive.
Relying on verbal cues to determine whether a newborn is happy or angry is impossible, since an infant has no capacity for using spoken language. So other signs are required to communicate whether he or she is happy or upset.
Hence the red face and squalling. Granted, nonstop crying seems like nature's guarantee that you'll never sleep soundly again. But it serves a valuable function, reminding you to change, feed, or comfort your baby.
As a child grows, her range of emotions and the way she expresses those emotions matures as well. In fact, a child's emotional development is much like the physical and mental: an increasingly complex progression of skills that build on each other.
There are six milestones in a young child's emotional maturation. The first three, all occurring before the first birthday, address a baby's experience of and reaction to the world. The first is how a child organizes and seeks out new sensations. The second occurs when the child takes a keen interest in the world. Using this newfound interest, the third step happens when the child begins to engage in an emotional dialogue with his parents. He smiles in response to his parents and discovers, in turn, that his smiles or cries of protest cause his parents to react.
After about a year, this interaction goes a step further, signifying the fourth milestone. The toddler learns that small bits of feelings and behaviors are connected to a larger and more complicated pattern. For instance, he now knows that his hunger pangs can be abated by leading mom to the refrigerator and pointing to a piece of cheese. He also begins to understand that both things and people have functions in his world.
At the fifth milestone, the child is generally approaching preschool years. He can now conjure up mental pictures of people and objects that are important to him. Now he has learned an invaluable coping skill: evoking the image of his mother and using it to comfort himself.
Finally, as he passes the sixth milestone, a child develops the capacity for 'emotional thinking'. This is the rich and full result of being able to combine ideas and feelings logically. By the time a child is four years old, he can arrange these emotional ideas into various patterns and knows the differences between emotions (what feels like love versus what feels like anger).
He understands that his impulses have consequences. If he says he hates you, he will connect the sad look on your face with his outburst. Much as he built a house with blocks, he can now build a collection of emotional ideas. This gives him the ability to plan and anticipate and to create an internal mental life for himself. Most importantly, he has learned which feelings are his and which are someone else's, and the impact and consequences of his feelings.
What began as a basic interest in the environment grows into a desire not only to interact with the world, but to re-create and re-experience it in his mind. It's a sophisticated process that happens invisibly but inevitably as your child grows.
Keep in mind that every child is unique, so what follows is only a general guide. Joy and anger are joined in the first months of life by pleasure, distress, surprise, and disgust. By eight or nine months old, infants experience fear and sadness. At one year, children have already experienced a wide range of emotions across the emotional spectrum.
Over time, the child will develop more complicated emotions, such as shame, guilt, and pride. A feeling of empathy can begin as early as the second year. And anyone who interacts with a preschooler can identify the exuberance and excitement that characterize these years.
Stranger anxiety peaks during the toddler years and between the ages of three and four, many other specific or global fears develop. A three-year-old is already capable of worrying about an important person or pet and feeling lonely in their absence. By age four or five, feelings of aggression surface, having already simmered inside for a time. Between the ages of four and six, a conscience begins to emerge, bringing a lifelong companion of guilt. From about ages three to six, jealousy over the opposite-sex parent starts to have an effect on behavior. Anger continues, but rather than being directed outward, it may be aimed more toward the self or generated over conflicts with others.
Once a child realizes he is separate from the people he's depended on since birth, it's bound to engender feelings of discomfort. One of the most prominent of these feelings is separation anxiety. This surfaces early in life and is difficult for young children to manage because it is composed of contradictory halves: the need for closeness and the desire for independence. But separation anxiety is developmentally essential. It sets the arena in which limits are eventually labeled and negotiated between parent and child. Other prominent childhood emotions such as anger, frustration, jealousy, or fear may either arise from or and become intertwined with separation anxiety.
In fact, all of your child's emotions are co-engaged in a kind of chaotic disguise. Is his fear of loud noises what it seems? Or is it really related to the normal and unsettling surge of aggressiveness that occurs at this age? Is your preschooler's tantrum a result of his anger at you, or is he feeling helpless over something he can't control?
Every six months of development seems to bring another twist to the emotional saga. For instance, the typical three-year-old may be happy, calm, secure, and friendly. As as the year goes on, however, this same child may become anxious, insecure, fearful, and determined. This equilibrium and disequilibrium alternates from ages 18 months to five years. Just as you're getting used to your child again, a few months pass and she becomes someone new, but not necessarily improved.
Emotions can coil up one inside another, such as when aggression is masked as fear or when anger obscures helplessness. But as a parent, being aware and prepared will help when these feelings are shuffled around every six months.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
American Academy of Pediatrics
Canadian Paediatric Society
The Psychology Foundation of Canada
Gross D, Conrad B. Temperament in toddlerhood. J Pediatr Nurs. 1995;10:146-51
Putnam SP, Gartstein MA, Rothbart MK. Measurement of fine-grained aspects of toddler temperament: The Early Childhood Behavior Questionnaire. Infant Behavior and Development.2006;29:386-401
Last reviewed January 2013 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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