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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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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.

Love and empathy

Preschoolers epitomize the exuberance of childhood, bringing the same enthusiasm from play to personal relationships. The young preschooler is a warm, affectionate person who loves others deeply, tenderly, and extravagantly. She loves herself very much, too. At this age, the conflict between loving others, wanting to please them, and loving oneself often leads to behavior problems. With time, however, a child’s love for others will emerge victorious. She will reach a point where she wants to give up personal gratification for the greater reward of adult approval.

Caring about other people’s feelings (empathy) is a desirable quality to instill in children. The age at which true empathy emerges is still questionable. Experiments have shown that babies under 1 year old will cry when shown pictures of other babies crying. One particularly empathic 2-year-old was noted to say ‘poor baby’ as she cuddled a “sad” doll. Does this mean that young children understand how another person is feeling?

Dr. Graae believes that even by preschool age, children may not yet have a fine-tuned sense of empathy, because empathy requires a cognitive development as well. “Empathy requires you to somehow take the other person’s position,” he says. Though experts have not pinpointed the time when empathy does bloom, we can still encourage it in our preschoolers. “Helping kids understand that other people have feelings is important, even if it takes them a while developmentally to really feel other people’s hurt.,” said Dr. Graae. Even at a young age, kids can cognitively say, “Yes, I would be sad, too.” They may not necessarily get the whole idea, but it’s part of an emerging process.

Further Reading

Ames, Louise Bates, Ph.D., and Frances L. Ilg, Ph.D. Your Three-Year-Old, Dell Publishers, 1987

Brazelton, T. Berry, M.D. To Listen to a Child: Understanding the Normal Problems of Growing Up, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1984.

Brazelton, T. Berry, M.D. Toddlers & Parents, Delacorte Press, 1989.

Greenspan, Stanley, M.D., and Nancy Thorndike Greenspan. First Feelings: Milestones in the Emotional Development of Your Baby and Child, Penguin Books, 1989.

Paul, Henry A., M.D. When Kids Are Mad, Not Bad. Berkley Publishing Group, 1995.

Roiphe, Herman, M.D., and Anne Roiphe. Your Child’s Mind: The Complete Guide to Infant and Child Emotional Well-being, St. Martin’s/Marek, 1985.

White, Burton L. The New First Three Years of Life, Fireside (Simon & Schuster), 1995.

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 21, 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.