Emotional Development in Preschool Age Children
Three-, four-, and five-year-olds express a wide range of emotions and are able to use appropriate labels such as mad, sad, happy, and just okay to differentiate their feelings. During these preschool years, children’s emotional states are very situation-specific and can change as rapidly as they switch from one activity to another. As children develop from three-year-olds into five-year-olds, there is an increasing internalization and regulation over their emotions. As three-, four-, and five-year-olds acquire new cognitive and language skills, they learn to regulate their emotions and to use language to express how they and others feel.
Three- and four-year-olds’ emotions are largely on the surface. At one moment in the classroom, Matthew is laughing uncontrollably about the funny faces that his friend Nathan is making. Within a split second, Matthew is sobbing because Nathan stuck his tongue out at him. “I was just making a funny face,” said Nathan. Three- and four-year-olds are beginning to understand the different emotions that they experience, yet they have difficulty regulating these emotions and using appropriate labels to describe the emotions. Their emotions are very connected to the events and feelings that are occurring at that moment (Hyson, 1994).
Three- and four-year-olds also have difficulty separating feelings from actions. If they feel something, they express it. If they want something, they try to take it. Delaying gratification and controlling impulsive feelings are often a challenge. Their natural curiosity can often lead them into trouble. Matthew began building a bridge with blocks. His intense focus and his desire for the blocks did not allow him to see that Nathan was already using the blocks as part of his construction site. A tug-of-war over the blocks evolved into a hitting match. Four-year-olds can often use physical means to solve conflicts instead of verbally negotiating their needs (Hyson, 1994). Teaching children appropriate ways to express their emotions is an important milestone in their development. Conflicts that arise over two children’s need for the same object are common; children are learning how to solve conflicts in socially acceptable ways (Hazen & Brownell, 1999).
Three-year-olds experience emotions in extremes. When three-year-olds are angry, they often express their emotions through temper tantrums or some physical display. The same is true when they are happy, expressing their joy through uncontrollable laughter and/or squeals of delight. It is as if the Tickle Me Elmo doll were modeled on them. The slightest event can bring uncontrollable laughter. Once they begin, it is difficult to stop them from laughing.
Four-year-olds begin to understand that the expression of extreme emotions can have an effect on others around them. Every time four-year-old Nina has a temper tantrum when she doesn’t get what she wants, her mom removes her from the situation and won’t let her have her favorite toy for a limited time. Nina is beginning to understand the relationship between playing with her favorite doll and having a tantrum.
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