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Understanding Your Toddler’s Emotional Moods

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.

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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.

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 October 26, 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.