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Emotion Overload: Understanding Your Toddler's Moods

IMAGE Preschool children grow by leaps and bounds: physically, mentally, and socially. From tears and tantrums to affectionate kisses and uncontrolled exuberance, a preschooler's moods and feelings can be confusing. But there is information that can help parents understand, cope with, and nurture their child's emotional development.

Small People, Big Feelings

They stand under 4 feet tall. Their hands and feet are adorably little. They wear small clothes, love tiny toys, and have a favorite stuffed friend that is just the right size for cuddling. But their feelings are so very big.

Preschoolers aged 2 to 5 years can have emotions that demand attention, validation, and resolution. They are intense, entangled, confusing, and surprisingly sophisticated. They produce tears and then suddenly, smiles.

Buckle up. You are about to tumble over the rough and wonderful terrain that is the emotional life of a preschooler.

Merging Sense With Sensibility

The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed that emotional development begins at birth. This is no surprise to a parent desperately trying to comfort a squalling, angry, red-faced newborn. But before age 2, a child's emotions are mostly reactive.

"They're happy. They're angry," says Robert Pianta, PhD, associate professor of education at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education in Charlottesville and co-director of a long-term study examining the social, psychological and academic needs of young children.

Relying on verbal cues to determine whether a newborn is happy or angry is impossible, since an infant has no capacity for using spoken language. So other signs are required. "The infant needs to signal whether she's in a state of equilibrium and pleasure or a state of disequilibrium. That's what the binary simple emotions do," says Dr. Pianta.

Hence the red face and squalling. Granted, nonstop crying seems like nature's guarantee that you'll never sleep soundly again. But it serves a valuable function, reminding you to change, feed, or comfort your baby.

As a child grows, their range of emotions and the way they express those emotions matures as well. In fact, a child's emotional development is much like the physical and mental: an increasingly complex progression of skills that build on each other.

There are 6 milestones in a young child's emotional maturation. The first 3, all occurring before the first birthday, address a baby's experience of and reaction to the world. The first is how a child organizes and seeks out new sensations. The second occurs when the child takes a keen interest in the world. Using this newfound interest, the third step happens when the child begins to engage in an emotional dialogue with their parents. They smile in response to their parents and discover, in turn, that their smiles or cries of protest cause their parents to react.

After about a year, this interaction goes a step further, signifying the fourth milestone. The toddler learns that small bits of feelings and behaviors are connected to a larger and more complicated pattern. For instance, they now know that hunger pangs can be abated by leading mom to the refrigerator and pointing to a piece of cheese. They also begin to understand that both things and people have functions in their world.

At the fifth milestone, the child is generally approaching preschool years. They can now conjure up mental pictures of people and objects that are important to them. Now they learn an invaluable coping skill: evoking the image of mother and using it to comfort themselves.

Finally, as they passes the sixth milestone, a child develops the capacity for 'emotional thinking'. This is the rich and full result of being able to combine ideas and feelings logically. By the time a child is 4 years old, they can arrange these emotional ideas into various patterns and know the differences between emotions—what feels like love versus what feels like anger.

They understand that their impulses have consequences. If they says they hate you, they will connect the sad look on your face with the outburst. Much as they built a house with blocks, they can now build a collection of emotional ideas. This gives them the ability to plan and anticipate and to create an internal mental life for themselves. Most importantly, they have learned which feelings are theirs and which are someone else's, and the impact and consequences of those feelings.

What began as a basic interest in the environment grows into a desire not only to interact with the world, but to re-create and re-experience it in their mind. It's a sophisticated process that happens invisibly but inevitably as your child grows.

An Emotional Timeline

Keep in mind that every child is unique, so what follows is only a general guide. Joy and anger are joined in the first months of life by pleasure, distress, surprise, and disgust. By 8 or 9 months old, infants experience fear and sadness. At 1 year, children have already experienced a wide range of emotions across the emotional spectrum.

"Most of the feelings a human is able to experience are available to preschoolers," says Paulina F. Kernberg, MD, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, West Chester Division, White Plains. Dr. Pianta adds that "Typically, emotions get more complicated as a child gets older. They blend into one another and blend in with the child's cognition. There is a set of secondary emotions that appear at approximately age 2, which is when a child becomes a little more self-conscious. That's when you'll first notice emotions such as shame, guilt, and pride, which reflects a child's emergent sense of self. Then a child can begin to have emotions about how the self is and behaves." A feeling of empathy can begin as early as the second year. And anyone who interacts with a preschooler can identify the exuberance and excitement that characterize these years.

Stranger anxiety peaks during the toddler years and between the ages of 3 and 4, many other specific or global fears develop. A 3-year-old is already capable of worrying about an important person or pet and feeling lonely in their absence. By age 4 or 5, feelings of aggression surface, having already simmered inside for a time. Between the ages of 4 and 6, a conscience begins to emerge, bringing a lifelong companion of guilt. From about ages 3 to 6, jealousy over the opposite-sex parent starts to have an effect on behavior. Anger continues, but rather than being directed outward, it may be aimed more toward the self or generated over conflicts with others.

"The emotional range between the ages of two and five is huge when you consider how far kids come during that time. The start of it is very different from how it winds up," says James MacIntyre, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at Albany Medical College in New York, and a child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice. "One of the biggest things that occurs is that a child gets much more of a feeling of who they are as a person, a person in their own right. This has to do with leaving the toddler stage and starting to figure out they're a separate person from their parents."

Once a child realizes they are separate from the people they're depended on since birth, it's bound to engender feelings of discomfort. One of the most prominent of these feelings is separation anxiety. This surfaces early in life and is difficult for young children to manage because it is composed of contradictory halves: the need for closeness and the desire for independence. But separation anxiety is developmentally essential. It sets the arena in which limits are eventually labeled and negotiated between parent and child. Other prominent childhood emotions such as anger, frustration, jealousy, or fear may either arise from or and become intertwined with separation anxiety.

In fact, all of your child's emotions are co-engaged in a kind of chaotic disguise. Is their fear of loud noises what it seems? Or is it really related to the normal and unsettling surge of aggressiveness that occurs at this age? Is your preschooler's tantrum a result of anger at you, or are they feeling helpless over something they can't control?

Every 6 months of development seems to bring another twist to the emotional saga. For instance, the typical 3-year-old may be happy, calm, secure, and friendly. As as the year goes on, however, this same child may become anxious, insecure, fearful, and determined. This equilibrium and disequilibrium alternates from ages 18 months to five years. Just as you're getting used to your child again, a few months pass and she becomes someone new, but not necessarily improved.

Emotions can coil up one inside another, such as when aggression is masked as fear or when anger obscures helplessness. But as a parent, being aware and prepared will help when these feelings are shuffled around every 6 months.

  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

    http://www.aacap.org

  • American Academy of Pediatrics

    http://www.healthychildren.org

  • Canadian Paediatric Society

    http://www.cps.ca

  • The Psychology Foundation of Canada

    http://www.psychologyfoundation.org

  • Gross D, Conrad B. Temperament in toddlerhood. J Pediatr Nurs. 1995;10:146-51

  • Putnam SP, Gartstein MA, Rothbart MK. Measurement of fine-grained aspects of toddler temperament: The Early Childhood Behavior Questionnaire. Infant Behavior and Development.2006;29:386-401