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Understanding Your Toddler’s Emotional Moods

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.”

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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.”

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 August 6, 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.