How to Help Preschoolers Handle Their Feelings

How to help preschoolers handle their feelings

So let’s talk preschoolers.

They’re delightful one minute, demonic the next. One moment their mantra is “By Myself”; the next they are the helpless baby again. One of the most important things we have to do for our two-, three-, and four-year-olds is help them develop emotional self-control. They have to learn to handle disappointment, frustration, and delayed gratification—all of the feelings—without flipping out (ahem, screaming, kicking, hitting, falling on the floor in a writhing heap).

Emotional self-control is not something kids achieve after a one-time punishment or conversation, and kids don’t just automatically “grow into it” without guidance—it’s one of those things they only develop with consistent, patient help from us. Which means that we, the parent, must also learn a whole new level of patience and emotional self-control, ha! 

How to Handle Temper Tantrums

So if you’ve got a three-year-old in the throes of throwing him- or herself on the floor screaming every time they don’t get their way…keep working on it. Be firm and consistent every time they shout, or flop on the floor, or hit, or stomp their foot—if they realize that tantrums NEVER achieve what they want, over time they’ll give up the tactic. But don’t just discourage tantrums; encourage patience and self-control (encourage them with praise, reward, etc.). Try equipping your child with simple strategies to help them get control of wild feelings (count to ten and breathe; go sit in the other room for a minute and calm down; squeeze your hands together).

How to help preschoolers handle their feelings

But we can’t just deal with them in the crisis moment—if we want to see real growth, we have to take it deeper. In calm moments, talk to them about patience, sharing, being calm, about explaining their feelings in words rather than acting them out, about good and bad ways to deal with big feelings. Teach them, in simple terms, about the deeper, heart-level concepts of patience, not always getting your way, being unselfish and loving, and not being mean to others. Use simple scriptures to reinforce these principles. Preschoolers are smart, and they really do understand when we talk to them about these things—we just have to catch them in the right moment. They often “get it” in their heads, but then we have to help their feelings and self-control mature and catch up. (And watch “Daniel Tiger” together—seriously, that show and its little songs help!)

If we hang in there, our preschool days will be more delightful than demonic, and one day, this crazy emotional roller coaster ride will flatten out…at least until the preteen years…but that’s another post another day.

I recently spoke about helping kids with whining on Facebook Live—you can watch the recording here!

Where is God when life gets hard…and…what to do when kids whine!

Nai-post ni Elizabeth Laing Thompson, Writer at LizzyLife noong Miyerkules, Marso 22, 2017

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Is It Time for a Showdown with Your Kid?

winning the battle of wills

The first part of this article applies best to young preschoolers (ages two, three, and four); the questions in the second half will be helpful in parenting older children as well. 

The scene: a middle-of-nowhere McDonald’s where our family has stopped for a bathroom-and-snack break while traveling.

The surface issue: a bib.

The real issue: Who is in charge—me or my 2-year-old.

Me to my 2-year-old: “You can have some ice cream like the big kids, but you have to wear a bib.”

2-year-old: “NO! No bib!” (Begins crying and tugging at bib.)

Me to myself, glancing around at all the McDonalds customers who are pretending not to stare at us: Okay, I have a decision to make. Do I let her take off the bib, or do I stick to my guns? I could just make her start over and ask calmly and respectfully if she can take off the bib, and then let her take it off, but . . . sigh. This time I need to stick to my guns. First, she’s been fighting me a lot lately. Not good. Second, I don’t want her getting ice cream all over her shirt before we get back in the car. Third, she needs to know that she doesn’t get her way by pitching fits. Fourth, she needs to learn that she doesn’t always get her way, period. 

Me to 2-year-old: “Okay, fine. You can take off the bib, but that means no ice cream. If you keep the bib on, you can eat your ice cream.”

2-year-old, loudly: “Me want ICE KWEAM!”

Me: “Okay. Then keep your bib on.”

2-year-old: “No no no no no bib!” Tugs even harder at the bib.

We are definitely getting some looks now. I’m beginning to wonder if we need to take this little confrontation outside.

Me, reaching for her ice cream: “Okay, then no ice cream.”

2-year-old: Throws head back and cries halfheartedly at the ceiling. Not a full-on fit, but she’s thinking about it. I brace myself for the worst. But then she looks at me and I can see surrender in her eyes. “Me want ice kweam.” She stops tugging on the bib.

I hand her the spoon and she digs in, all smiles again. I breathe a sigh of relief. Minor skirmish resolved. Score one for Mommy.

I call this a “minor skirmish,” because in the grand scheme of parenting, it wasn’t a huge deal. This wasn’t a make-or-break moment…not necessarily.

But it was important. It was important because it showed my 2-year-old who is in charge. It taught her that Mommy and Daddy mean what we say. We allowed her to make a choice and gave her a sense of control in her own life, but within the rules we had set for her. It taught her that she can’t get her way by pitching a fit or being stubborn. She can’t wear us down.

In the middle of moments like this, we can feel ridiculous: I’m in a McDonald’s, arguing with a two-year-old over a bib. You start to feel like a two-year-old yourself.

But don’t underestimate the significance of these little confrontations. Small parenting victories like these do matter. Why?

Are there times when we can decide not to turn a little moment into a battle of wills? Of course. Are there times when we can (and should) be flexible for the sake of peace? Definitely. (Keep in mind that more flexibility is often in order with older kids. We need to parent them differently than we would a two- or three- or four-year-old. For more on that concept, read How to Raise Respectful Children and When Your Kid Won’t Stop Whining.)

Here are some of the criteria I use when deciding if it’s time to have a showdown (major or minor) with one of my kids, or if it’s time to pull an Elsa and “let it go”:

  • Do I have frequent conflict with this child? Do they constantly fight me on every little decision or rule I make? If so, it’s probably time for me to win some decisive battles.

  • Does this child always insist on getting their way, or is this an unusual situation (maybe they are tired or hungry, or they just really, really hate this particular bib)? If that’s the case, maybe I can make an exception.

  • Am I giving in just because I want to avoid a confrontation? (Bad idea.)

  • If I change my rule or give in right now, will I encourage this child to pitch fits or argue with me to get their way in the future? (Bad idea.)

  • Am I giving in to my child because I am too tired to deal with them? (Bad idea.)

  • Am I giving this child their way because I’m not confident that I can win a battle of wills with them? Am I afraid I will lose? (This shows that I have some work to do on my own confidence as a parent.)

  • Am I being unreasonable, unfair, or unkind to my child by insisting on my way? If so, then can I find a graceful compromise that maintains my authority as the parent, but also acknowledges that my original rule might not have been the best plan?

I realize that moments like these are tricky. How is it that a preschooler can get in your head and have you doing all kinds of mental gymnastics, questioning everything you thought you ever knew about parenting? (Or bib-wearing?)

Just remember: A few well-timed victories in skirmishes with young kids will prevent major battles later. It’s much easier to win a battle of wills with an impressionable two- or three-year-old than with a six-year-old who has spent six years thinking that they are the boss. The earlier you establish yourself as the confident but compassionate authority figure in your child’s life, the happier their little life will be.

My son, do not forget my teaching,

but keep my commands in your heart. . . .

Do not be wise in your own eyes;

fear the Lord and shun evil.

-Proverbs 2:1,7

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You might also enjoy this video, on how to teach young kids to obey:

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