Learn the signs your preschooler may be struggling with big emotions and how to ease their anxiety through talking, routines, play, and even snuggling.

By Michelle Crouch
February 05, 2021
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Preschoolers tend to show their feelings through actions rather than communicating with words. Common signs that they're feeling sad or lonely include tantrums, loss of interest in their favorite activities, trouble sleeping, and overreacting to things they normally take in stride. Some 3- and 4-year-olds get more clingy when they're down; others act defiant. It's also not unusual to see some regressive behavior. For example, a potty-trained child may start having accidents.

Suspect your child could be struggling with sadness or loneliness? Here's what to do.

Talk About Feelings

Keep questions open-ended ("How are you feeling about having to stay inside because of the virus?"), and don't try to talk your child out of their emotions. Instead, acknowledge and validate them by saying things like, "It's okay to feel scared sometimes" or "I know it's hard not to see your grandparents." Brainstorm solutions together. Maybe Grandma can read them a book over FaceTime. Reassure your child that you and the other adults in their life are doing everything they can to keep them safe.

Provide Routine and Structure

Predictability is reassuring for preschoolers, and research shows it helps reduce anxiety. Have set bedtimes and mealtimes, and designate breaks for daily reading, independent play, physical activity, electronics, and time when the two of you will play together. Amp up the fun by including family movie night, a game hour, or craft time on your weekly calendar.

Offer One-on-One Attention

The good news: Most 3- and 4-year-olds are okay with not interacting with other kids their age, as long as they get some special time with you. Make time for a few short sessions of undivided attention each day. Experts say the key is letting them lead you in play. That means not directing your child or trying to create a teaching moment. Instead, reflect back what your child says, praise specific actions, and imitate what they are doing. Studies show that just five minutes of this type of child-directed play is enough to fill a child's emotional bucket.

Get Close

Touch is a powerful way to soothe and connect. Some kids love snuggling. For others, you may have to sneak in hugs and cuddles, or offer a back rub at bedtime. You can also try playful games that incorporate touch: Roll your child up in a blanket and say they're a caterpillar going into a cocoon and about to hatch into a beautiful butterfly. Or pretend they're different instruments, and play the drums on their stomach, a piano on their back, or a tuba on their stomach. Silliness and laughter are a great antidote to feeling sad.

Set up Safe Ways to Socialize

It can be awkward for preschoolers to just stare at each other through a screen. Instead, set up a Zoom or a FaceTime playdate in which kids are participating in an activity, whether it's building with DUPLOS or having a dance party. Or help them surprise a friend with fresh-baked cookies on their doorstop. Kids can also meet outside for a sidewalk chalk party (remember to wear your mask)!

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's March 2021 issue as "Support Kids When They Are Sad and Lonely." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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