Preschooler Emotional Development

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 08, 2022
4 min read

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

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

At this age, your preschooler still hasn't developed much impulse control. If they feel something, they are likely to act on it. This may mean snatching a toy away from another child if they want to play with it, or getting upset when they want a snack after being told they have to wait until dinnertime. Delayed gratification means nothing to them -- they want it, and want 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, they'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. They are starting to develop a sense of humor, and love being silly and making people laugh. Don't be surprised if you hear them calling their 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 their boo boo.

By age 5, your child has made leaps and bounds in their emotional development. They've gotten much better at regulating their emotions, and they talk about their feelings easily. They have also gotten better at controlling their impulses. They patiently wait their turn, and often ask first before taking something that isn't theirs.

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

Around this age, your preschooler may start to get interested in sexuality. They may ask questions about where babies come from. They are fascinated by their own body, and may start to touch or play with their genitals. They 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 they understand 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 they understand that it's never OK for other people to touch their 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.

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 their own creation. Their dolls and stuffed animals all have names and personalities. They 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 their own life, their fantasy world is their own creation. They're in charge.

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

As your child gets older, fantasy play will continue to be an important part of their life, but they'll get better at understanding the difference between fantasy and reality. their 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.


The older your preschooler gets, the more they'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 their life fairly structured. Give them choices, but don't give them endless choices. Let them choose between two outfits to wear, or ask them if they want a turkey sandwich or macaroni and cheese for lunch. When they ask to do something you know isn't a good idea, hold firm. Being allowed choices within a structured framework will help to boost their self-confidence while at the same time letting them know they are safe and secure.