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Helping Understand Your Preschooler’s Emotions


Tears flow freely in childhood, but that doesn’t mean your child is sad. There is an important distinction between crying and being sad. Crying is active and attention-getting; sad is passive and subdued. Most of the time, crying is healthy; sadness, at times, is not.

Under normal circumstances, sadness is a sign of emotional growth. A child can’t feel loss unless she first cares for or values someone or something. Feelings of sadness can be evoked by events that range from the loss of a toy to the loss of a grandparent. It’s also possible that there may be a delayed reaction to a traumatic event — that may surface later as bad dreams — long after parents think the child has recovered.


A young girl falls in love with her father. A boy wants only his mother and sees his father as a rival for her love. Falling in love with the opposite-sex parent is an emotional phenomenon known as either the Oedipus or the Electra complex.

This set of feelings — eroticism and envy — may be expressed as trouble sleeping; fears and nightmares; overreaction to small injuries; aggressive, violent, combative behavior; flirtation; and, most stereotypically, as a wish to ‘marry Mommy or Daddy.’

This is all part of normal human development. When a child reaches age 5 or 6, these possessive feelings and jealousies start to dissipate. What remains is a healthy sexual identity, a grasp of emotional reality, and a rational identification with the same-sex parent.

Then there are the siblings. From birth, a new baby is a stress for older siblings. When the baby becomes mobile and asserts herself, sibling rivalry is expressed in its most direct form. This can range from the occasional bop on the head of the younger sibling; to fears and bad dreams; to behavioral changes such as regression (baby talk, wetting the bed, thumb-sucking), obnoxious behavior, and temper tantrums. Some children are quiet and good but repeatedly fall down and hurt themselves.

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 September 23, 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.