Big feelings of anger, upset, sadness, frustration and discouragement are common for preschoolers. So much so, that we are all well acquainted with the term “tantrum.” It is natural and normal for children to emote freely and with great intensity from time to time. Often this is more frequent in the preschool years.
Children aren't so different than we are- they are simply developing human beings and often don’t have the same level of emotional regulation skills we have. If we think of the child in these terms, we are more likely to feel empathetic for their plight instead of wanting to direct or change their feelings and behaviors.
Often the emotions children express make a lot of sense in context, but sometimes it seems like an out of proportion response to a situation. Many preschool-aged children don't have the capacity to regulate in certain instances until they cry or rage for a while. They are simply flooded with emotions.
Young children's brains are developing and part of that development is in the emotional centers of the brain, which in itself can create a more emotional child. Just as muscles can ache from “growing pains,” so can emotions.
As a parent, you likely know all too well that when your child is hungry or tired or possibly moving from one activity to the next, these moments are much more likely to be emotional for your child. Transitions such as bedtimes or drop off/pick up at school are also times where you might see more dysregulation or upset.
Often big emotions emerge due to a combination of upsets and/or developmental reasons.
One reason could just be needing more, regular connected time with you.
If your child is going through a period of frequent emotional outbursts, and you aren’t sure why, you may gain some insight into whether there is a pattern of triggers by keeping an observational journal for a while. Simply note what you can about the day and the time leading up to the meltdowns, and use this as a retrospective tool to try to figure out what might be upsetting them. Give it some time, it may be a week or two of notes before you notice a reason or pattern that makes sense.
The preschool stage is a time when children are trying to individuate and gain more control over their own choices and daily life. They may also be trying to do new and challenging things for them. This can create a tension for the parent too, who has grown accustomed to taking care of the daily schedule and making many choices for the child about the routines and expectations.
Take a deep breath. There is no perfect parent.
We wouldn't want our children to witness a parent that has no frustrations or moments when they make mistakes in judgment. It is true that it helps our children when we can be patient and understanding as much as we can. But when we can't, when we lose our own cool and raise our voices, these moments are ripe with possibilities for connection, understanding and repair.
In fact, there is huge value in sharing our regrets and repairing a rupture with apologies to our children when we feel we didn't act in the way we would have liked to. For more about what you can do to support your child through these moments, here is a blog about listening to children.