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Understanding Your Toddler’s Emotional Moods

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.

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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.

Understanding Your Toddler’s Emotional Moods

Amy Bellows, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Bellows, A. (2020). Understanding Your Toddler’s Emotional Moods. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 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.