Emotion Overload: Defining 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. 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 (or 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 concern is a fear of losing oneself. 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 or her 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.
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.
In most cases, 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 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.
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. At this age, the conflict between loving others, wanting to please them, and loving oneself may lead to behavior problems. The child will reach a point, however, where she or he 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 one year old will cry when shown pictures of other babies crying.
Even by preschool age, children may not yet have a fine-tuned sense of empathy because empathy requires a cognitive development as well. 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.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
American Academy of Pediatrics
About Kids Health
Alberta Children's Services
Last reviewed January 2009 by ]]>Kari Kassir, MD]]>
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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