Preschooler Emotional Development

Even at age 3 or 4, your child is very much her own person. She has distinct likes and dislikes, and her personality is developing more every day. She is getting better at using words to express how she's feeling, which means fewer tantrums. Her mood may still change drastically from one moment to the next, but she is more likely to talk about being angry or sad rather than having a meltdown.

Preschoolers: Ruled by Emotions

Though your 3-year-old is beginning to understand the emotions he's feeling, he still has very little control over them. If he finds something funny, he'll laugh hysterically. If something makes him feel sad or angry, he'll burst into tears.

At this age, your preschooler still hasn't developed much impulse control. If he feels something, he's likely to act on it. This may mean snatching a toy away from another child if he wants to play with it, or getting upset when he wants a snack after being told he has to wait until dinnertime. Delayed gratification means nothing to him -- he wants it, and he wants it now.

Three- and 4-year-old children may use hitting, biting, or pushing as a way to solve conflicts. They simply don't understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate interactions yet. It's your job to teach your child that there are right and wrong ways to express emotions and resolve problems with others.

As your child gets older, she'll begin to see a connection between emotional outbursts and negative consequences. Throwing a tantrum may result in a "time out" or a favorite toy being taken away. These consequences are helping your 4-year-old understand a tantrum isn't an acceptable way to show emotion.

Your 4-year-old is also a budding comedian. He's starting to develop a sense of humor, and he loves being silly and making people laugh. Don't be surprised if you hear him calling his friend a "poo-poo head" and then laughing hysterically; 4-year-olds find potty talk highly entertaining.

Empathy also begins to emerge around age 4. Four-year-olds are starting to understand that others have feelings, too, and they can relate when a friend is feeling sad or hurt. They may want to give a crying friend a hug or kiss his boo boo.


By age 5, your child has made leaps and bounds in her emotional development. She's gotten much better at regulating her emotions, and she talks about her feelings easily. She has also gotten better at controlling her impulses. She patiently waits her turn, and she often asks first before taking something that isn't hers.

When something makes your 5-year-old mad, she's much more likely to express her anger using words instead of getting physical or throwing a tantrum. The downside to this is that she may begin to use mean words and name-calling when she's angry or upset.

Around this age, your preschooler may start to get interested in sexuality. He may ask questions about where babies come from. He is fascinated by his own body, and he may start to touch or play with his genitals. He may also be interested in exploring the genitals of others. All of this is totally normal, but it's important to let your 5-year-old know what is and isn't appropriate.

Make sure he understands that it's OK to be curious about "private parts," but it's not OK to play with or show them in public. Also make sure he understands that it's never OK for other people to touch his genitals, except mom or dad during bath time, if something hurts down there, or during a doctor's appointment as long as mom or dad is in the room.

Preschoolers and Fantasy Play

Around age 3, children begin to develop a vivid imagination. At this age, your preschooler will begin to spend a great deal of time in a fantasy world of her own creation. Her dolls and stuffed animals all have names and personalities. She may chat with imaginary friends. Parents sometimes worry that imaginary friends are a sign of loneliness or isolation, but in fact they're just the opposite. Children use this type of fantasy play to learn how to interact with real people. It's practice for the "real world." At an age when your child has very little control over her own life, her fantasy world is her own creation. She's in charge.


Around the same time your preschooler begins to talk to an imaginary friend, he may also develop a fear of the monster living under his bed. These types of fears are common. They are also quite serious to him, so don't make a joke out of it. The best thing you can do is reassure your child that he's safe and nothing is going to hurt him.

As your child gets older, fantasy play will continue to be an important part of his life, but he'll get better at understanding the difference between fantasy and reality. His fantasies will get more elaborate and sophisticated, and don't be surprised if they sometimes involve violence. Don't let games of shoot-'em-up bother you; it's totally normal for children to be fascinated with weapons and violence at this age, and it's not a sign that they'll be violent when they're older.


Your Independent Preschooler

The older your preschooler gets, the more she'll crave independence. It may sound like a contradiction, but the best way to nurture your preschooler's independence and self-confidence is to keep her life fairly structured. Give her choices, but don't give her endless choices. Let her choose between two outfits to wear, or ask her if she wants a turkey sandwich or macaroni and cheese for lunch. When she asks to do something you know isn't a good idea, hold firm. Being allowed choices within a structured framework will help to boost her self-confidence while at the same time letting her know she's safe and secure.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on October 22, 2018


Seefelt, C. and Wasik, B.A. Early Education: Three, Four, and Five-Year-Olds Go to School, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall, 2005. "Emotional Development in Preschoolers."

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