Navigating a preschooler’s emotions can be difficult and overwhelming. They have so many emotions and preschoolers feel them so incredibly strong. This post is all about emotional development in preschoolers and what you, the teacher and/or parent, need to know about it.
Preschoolers have HUGE emotions. And though they all have individually unique personalities, they share experiencing their emotions in extreme ways. I mean…ever given a preschooler the “wrong color” drinking cup? (I have!)
You can see this in your child when they’re happy, when a smile bursts with laughter and uncontrollable giggling. It also manifests when they’re angry, when their emotional state becomes a physical display.
Young children’s emotions are also very situation specific, as they change rapidly from one activity or predicament to another. Their feelings are very connected to the events occurring right at the moment.
Though all this provides a lot of challenges, there is much to look forward to. Between the ages of three and five, your preschooler will make leaps and strides in the development of emotional management and controlling their big feelings.
Emotional Development in Preschoolers
Preschoolers grow a lot in just a few years, and that includes emotional growth. However, they need an adult to help them navigate and manage their feelings. Here are some important things to know about preschool emotional development.
A Big Responsibility
It is your responsibility to teach them the appropriate methods of controlling and expressing their feelings. They won’t figure this out on their own.
Teaching children to appropriately express their emotions with words will help them grow more independent, as well as avoid other means, such as physical, to express their emotions or solve a conflict.
Negative consequences for inappropriate emotional outbursts can help them learn what is and isn’t an acceptable way to show their feelings.
Toddlers and preschoolers are ruled by their emotions and don’t have much, if any, impulse control. And if there is one thing they don’t like, it’s being delayed gratification.
This, combined with their struggle to separate feelings from actions, means they’ll want to immediately express an emotion or gratify a desire. They will cry immediately when sad and when they feel they want something they will try to take it right away.
Keep this in mind as you try your best to teach them appropriate ways to show what they’re feeling as well as sharing and turn-taking skills.
Feeling for Others
Sympathy and empathy begin to develop at a young age too. After seeing a friend or sibling get hurt, your child may try to comfort them, offering kind words or a reassuring hug or pat on the back. As children become more aware of their emotions and how to control them, they also become more aware of the feelings of those around them. This can be an especially happy thing to see blossom in your child.
Three-year-olds are generally less interested in playing with other children, and have a greater capacity to be affected by separation anxiety; they’ll be more interested in staying with their parents or primary caregivers. Generally, four-year-olds will have an easier time with this and any separation anxiety will be more short-lived.
Try not to feel sad when it becomes easier for your child to be separated, this is important in their emotional development and ability to grow more independent.
Around the age of 4 children start understanding humor. If they learn something they do or say makes their parents or friends laugh, they’ll repeat it hoping to get the same reaction. Even if their joke only gets you to laugh once, it’ll have them cracking up even after the thousandth time. Understanding humor is an important sign that they recognize the feelings of others, and that they’re clueing into societal norms.
Ways to Help Emotional Development in Preschoolers
Healthy emotional development requires the help of trusted adults. Here are some ways you can help your preschooler during this important phase of their young lives.
Children’s fantasy play can be an important environment for them to prepare for emotional interaction in the real world. In pretend play your child will take on several identities themselves and will explore various emotions, as well as assign emotions and human qualities to their playthings and other inanimate objects.
Consider joining them in fantasy play. You can introduce real life problems you two face, as well as emotions you’re trying to work through. Don’t become too involved in their pretend play when they do let you in, always allow them to maintain control. Introduce your idea, and then take a step back and let them do their thing. You’re in charge of the real world, let them be in charge of the pretend one.
Let Them Choose
To help them learn independence, find a balance between providing them with opportunities to make choices and structure. Endless choices will overwhelm them. Try giving them two good options for an activity, an outfit, or what they want for lunch.
Giving them choices will help them feel important and will teach them decision-making skills, which they can only acquire by doing. Being allowed to choose within a structured framework will help them focus and be able to make a confident decision, as there is less room for error. This also benefits you as it helps you avoid some of the whacky requests they’ll come up with.
Emotional Development in Preschoolers as They Age
In even just a short while, your child’s progress will surprise you. By the time they’re about ready for kindergarten, they’ll be better at separating emotions from actions. They’ll be able to communicate comfortably and effectively with words, rather than physical displays. They’ll be able to show more patience waiting their turn for something they want, and they’ll ask for things rather than taking them immediately. Tears will become less of a regular occurrence and will usually only come with physical pain or extreme frustration.
Further Reading Focused on Emotional Development in Preschoolers
Emotional Development in Preschool-Aged Children
Preschooler Emotional Development
Preschoolers’ Emotional Development
I’m Sarah, an educator turned stay-at-home-mama of five! I’m the owner and creator of Stay At Home Educator, a website about intentional teaching and purposeful learning in the early childhood years. I’ve taught a range of levels, from preschool to college and a little bit of everything in between. Right now my focus is teaching my children and running a preschool from my home. Credentials include: Bachelors in Art, Masters in Curriculum and Instruction.