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Helping Understand Your Preschooler’s Emotions

One minute she’s biting. The next minute she’s giving kisses. What’s she really feeling? What’s going on in her little head? There is the potential for a range of emotions. How does each one affect your child?


“Anger is universal. It is a piece of emotional life experienced by every child,” says Flemming Graae, M.D., of the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in White Plains, New York. Anger often arises when limits are placed on a child. Limits can be external, such as when a parent won’t allow a certain behavior, or internal, such as when a child tries unsuccessfully to tie his own shoes.

Other anger triggers include the arrival of a new sibling; divorce; distress or sickness in the home; an upsetting event at school; and even minor physical ailments, such as an earache.

Anger takes many forms. When it’s primal, a child will bite, push, hit, and show other aggressive behaviors. Anger can be verbal. It can also manifest as defiance, stubbornness, and disobedience. Lying, which sometimes indicates anger, often begins during the preschool years. From preschool age on, angry children may also become accident-prone. If a child falls often or has a number of minor injuries, it’s possible she’s troubled about something.

Children need anger to move forward into the world with energy. Experts believe that aggression turned in the right direction makes us vivid and capable people. Encouraging children to express their feelings verbally is healthy. Suppressing feelings can lead to frustration and more anger.


It’s both common and normal for a preschooler to amass a collection of fears. Fears can be specific and obvious, such as being afraid of dogs, but can also be ambiguous, making it difficult for parents to link them to a given behavior.

Fear of taking a bath (actually, of going down the drain) is a common preschool anxiety. In the early part of this age range, a child doesn’t know how much space his body occupies. From his point of view, he can easily slip down the drain. Behind this ‘practical’ concern is a fear of losing oneself, of vanishing away into nothingness. The emerging sense of self-identity is closely tied to body concept, so any idea of physically disappearing seems very real.

Fears are a sign of a child’s ability to use ideas; to invent his own ‘meanings’ of events, sounds, and shadows. Nightmares are the result of experimenting with frightful ideas in sleep and perhaps expressing hidden wishes. Fears and aggressive dreams, experts say, are vital to healthy development in the preschooler and should be respected.

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Helping Understand Your Preschooler’s Emotions

Amy Bellows, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Bellows, A. (2020). Helping Understand Your Preschooler’s Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.