Preschoolers may look older than toddlers, but in spite of their expanding vocabulary and growing independence, they can still feel overwhelmed by strong emotions like anger, sadness, fear, and anxiety. “Their brain is growing at a rapid rate and their emotions don’t always keep pace,” says Katie Hurley, a child psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World.
However, researchers at Arizona State University found that kids who could handle challenging emotions were more resilient and better at paying attention at home and in school. And a study from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro linked kids’ emotional regulation with future academic success, including higher math and reading scores. Don’t expect your kid to get the hang of it instantly. Backsliding is inevitable at this age, but you can offer the tools to help get those emotions in check.
Kids experience their emotions physically, like a knot in the tummy, a clenched fist, or uncontrollable tears, but they don’t always know what those feelings mean. “When your child is experiencing an outsize emotion, label it for him,” says Lauren Knickerbocker, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center. Try saying, “You’re sad that Grandma has to leave, aren’t you?” or “Oh, you’re frustrated that your Lego tower fell down.” Naming emotions, Dr. Knickerbocker explains, makes them less scary and can help kids find a more appropriate response.
Your response to negative emotions sends a strong message to your kid. “We teach children through our own behavior how to handle fear, anger, and stress,” says Sarah C. Bauer, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Keep in mind that your kid is watching you for social cues and that your reaction to stress—either screaming at the T-ball coach or calmly voicing your opinion—can be a blueprint for his own reactions in the future. Ask yourself whether your responses are the ones you’d like to see in your child and act accordingly. If you do slip up, use the experience to offer a lesson in emotional management. If someone cuts you off in traffic and you yell at him, you can say, “Oops—I got a little angry at that other driver. I think I’m going to take some deep breaths to help the anger go away.” Let your child know it’s okay to feel bad by explaining, “I’m sad when Grandma leaves too” or “I felt angry and frustrated last week just like you, when I couldn’t fix that drippy faucet.”
Introduce children’s books that focus on managing emotions. “Taking a step back and seeing things through the eyes of a character on the page allows children to work through their own feelings at a safe distance,” says Hurley. She recommends Tiger and the Temper Tantrum, by Vivian French, or Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry... to help kids handle frustration and Kevin Henkes’s Sheila Rae, the Brave or Wemberly Worried to show that worry and fear are natural and conquerable feelings.
When it comes to handling emotions, every preschooler is different. Some children will find comfort in a cuddle, either with you or with their favorite stuffed animal, while others may need to run around outside. Your child’s antidote for frustration—tossing a ball against the driveway or imagining a happy place—may look different from the way she chooses to handle feeling nervous—talking to you or drawing a picture of her worries. Initially, you can make suggestions, says Dr. Knickerbocker. Try saying, “When I feel bad, hugging the puppy makes me feel better. Want to try it?” or “Blowing bubbles outside might help make those angry feelings go away.” Eventually, you should encourage your child to come up with her own solutions, but wait until the emotional storm has passed to have that type of conversation. She isn’t likely to absorb a lesson on emotional control when she’s in the middle of a meltdown. Once she is calm again, says Dr. Knickerbocker, you can ask her questions about what would have made her feel better or what she can do the next time she gets angry. At some point, those coping strategies will become a built-in part of the way your child responds in moments of emotional upheaval. Over time her strategies may change. What won’t is her ability to handle her emotions, whether she’s hugging her lovey at 4 or practicing yoga at 14.