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Emotion Overload: Defining Your Preschooler's Emotions

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IMAGE As your baby grows into preschool age, you may notice a marked change in emotions. You suddenly become aware of a tiny firestorm. Toddlers switch emotional gears without thought, which can always keep you guessing. What exactly is going on inside that head?

First and foremost, know that their emotions are normal, and unlike adults, they are based on the situation at hand. Which means, basically, that small fluctuations in activity can create a wide range of reactions. Can you anticipate the next mood swing? Maybe not, but if you understand their emotions and where they come from, you can understand them and learn to roll with the punches.

Anger

Anger is universal. It is a part of emotional life experienced by every child. Anger often arises when limits are placed on a child. For example, extreme emotions can trigger tantrums and physical fights when something like instant gratification is delayed. These limits can come from an adult, another child, or from a build up of frustration within the child.

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 be expressed verbally or physically. You will see a child will bite, push, hit, and show other aggressive behaviors. You may see another child yelling or crying. Anger can also be demonstrated 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, there may be something troubling the child.

Even though anger is a normal emotion, children do need to know there is a right time and wrong time to express it. Encouraging children to express their feelings verbally is healthy. Use moments of anger and aggression to teach your child about appropriate ways to handle these feelings and to channel anger productively.

Fear

Fears are a sign of a child's ability to use their imaginations to invent their own meanings of events, sounds, and shadows. Nightmares can be the result of experimenting with frightful ideas in sleep and perhaps expressing hidden wishes. Fears and aggressive dreams, are vital to healthy development in the preschooler and should be respected.

It is both common and normal for a preschooler to amass a collection of fears they can identifiy. Children's fears can be simple and obvious, like being afraid of the dark. Sometimes however, they are not so obvious and it can be hard to connect the fear to behavior.

It is easy to forget that children do not have a full awareness of reality, so take a minute to try to understand where your child is coming from, or maybe tell a story. Help them take charge of their fears so they learn how to feel in control of situations, and maybe even laugh at it.

Sadness

Tears do not necessarily mean your child is sad. There is an important distinction between crying and being sad. Crying is active and attention-getting, while sadness is passive and subdued. Crying and sadness are healthy and normal as long as they do not last too long.

Sadness can be a part of many different emotions. Emotional hurt, frustration, problems, or not getting your own way can contribute to these feelings. Sadness can be something that is immediate or delayed. Sometimes a reaction to a traumatic event can be delayed, even when you think the appropriate time has passed.

In most cases, sadness is a sign of emotional growth. It shows that your child is able to care about something or someone. Be aware of when your child feels sad and see if you can determine what is causing it.

Sibling Rivalry

Bringing home a new baby can be stressful for older siblings. The older child may express occassional aggression, or experience regression (acting like a baby). Rivalry builds when the baby starts to move around and show more independence. You may have noticed that it is not uncommon for siblings to run the range from love to hatred.

New needs arise for growing children all the time. It is important to be able to understand what your child needs and why they are behaving in a certain way. The conflict is normal, so unless there is physical harm, try to stay out of it and let them work it out for themselves. If you have to get involved, do not pick sides. Try to resolve it by separating them and working out a compromise.

You may want to consider ground rules, making sure your children have their own space, and work on letting them understand you love each of them without limits.

Things are not all bad. Your child has good emotions to share as well.

Love and Empathy

Preschoolers epitomize the exuberance of childhood, bringing the same enthusiasm from play to personal relationships. They are warm and affectionate, and may try to engage you in some laughter with jokes. Children are learning to seek adult approval rather than please themselves. At this age, you may see conflicts between loving others, wanting to please them, and loving oneself.

It is important for children to learn about empathy. Empathy develops slowly over the first several years before the child heads off to school. True understanding of empathy however, may not develop until around age 4 when the child realizes that other people have feelings too.

Even by preschool age, children may not yet have a fine-tuned sense of empathy because empathy requires a cognitive development as well. A younger child may experience someone's pain as if it were happening to them. As they develop, they learn how to help and express comfort. 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.

Children feel the same emotions as adults, but they express them much differently. Keep the lines of communication open and you may find it easier to manage those unruly moments.

  • The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

    http://www.aacap.org/

  • American Academy of Pediatrics

    http://www.aap.org/

  • About Kids Health

    http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/

  • Alberta Children's Services

    http://www.child.gov.ab.ca/index.cfm/

  • Early Childhood Emotional and Social Development: Reflective Empathy. Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view%5Fdoc.php?type=doc&id=12763&cn=462. Updated January 16, 2008. Accessed December 6, 2012.

  • Emotional Development in Preschool Age Children. Education website. Available at: http://www.education.com/reference/article/emotional-development-preschool-children/. Accessed December 6, 2012.

  • Helping Understand Your Preschooler’s Emotions. PsychCentral website. Available at: http://psychcentral.com/lib/2007/helping-understand-your-preschoolers-emotions/all/1/. Accessed December 6, 2012.

  • Sibling Rivalry. Kids Health website. Available at : http://kidshealth.org/parent/positive/family/sibling%5Frivalry.html#. Updated August 2012. Accessed December 6, 2012.