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.

Small people, big feelings

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 2-5 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.

Merging sense with sensibility

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 2, a child’s emotions are simpler and mostly reactive to the environment or how he is feeling.

“They’re happy. They’re angry,” says Robert Pianta, Ph.D., associate professor of education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education in Charlottesville, Va., and co-director of a long-term study examining the social, psychological and academic needs of young children.

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. “The infant needs to signal whether she’s in a state of equilibrium and pleasure or a state of disequilibrium. That’s what the binary simple emotions do,” says Dr. Pianta.

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. Cheer up, though! Crying eventually gives way to a dubious improvement: whining.

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 on the cusp of the 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 herself. 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.

An emotional timeline

Joy and anger are joined in the first months of life by pleasure, distress, surprise, and disgust. By 8-9 months old, infants experience fear and sadness. At one year, children have already experienced the emotional spectrum. Keep in mind that every child is unique, so this is only a general guide.

Stranger anxiety peaks during the toddler years and by age 3 or 4, many other specific or global fears develop. A 3-year-old is already capable of worrying about an important person or pet and feeling lonely in their absence. By age 4 or 5, feelings of aggression surface, having already simmered inside for a time. Between the ages of 4 and 6, a conscience begins to emerge, bringing with it the lifelong companion of guilt. From about ages 3 to 6, 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.

Emotions, of course, are not limited to the negative. Preschoolers are capable of experiencing love and affection on some level, though probably not in the same way adults do. 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.

“Practically most of the feelings a human is able to experience are available to preschoolers,” says Paulina F. Kernberg, M.D., director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, Westchester Division, White Plains, New York. Dr. Pianta adds that “Typically, emotions get more complicated as a child gets older. They blend into one another and blend in with the child’s cognition. There is a set of secondary emotions that appear at approximately age 2, which is when a child becomes a little more self-conscious. That’s when you’ll first notice emotions such as shame, guilt, and pride, which reflects a child’s emergent sense of self. Then a child can begin to have emotions about how the self is and behaves.”

There is no single lightning bolt when this self-awareness strikes; like all good things worth waiting for, it unfolds gradually. “The emotional range from ages 2 to 5 is huge when you consider how far kids come during that time. The start of it is very different from how it winds up,” says James MacIntyre, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Albany Medical College in Albany, New York, and a child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice. “One of the biggest things that occurs is that a child gets much more of a feeling of who they are as a person, a person in their own right. This has to do with leaving the toddler stage and starting to figure out they’re a separate person from their parents.”

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 — anger, frustration, jealousy, 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 3-year-old may be happy, calm, secure, friendly. As 3 approaches, this pleasant, engaging child becomes anxious, insecure, fearful, and determined. This equilibrium and disequilibrium alternate from ages 18 months to 5 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. When these feelings are shuffled around every six months, is it any wonder that the parents of preschoolers are often baffled?

Further Reading

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

Beadle, Muriel. A Child’s Mind: How Children Learn During the Critical Years From Birth to Age 5. Doubleday, 1974.

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.

Fraiberg, Selma H. The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959.

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.

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