Emotional Development of Young Children Part II : Preschoolers of 3 to 6 years old

Emotional development includes the ability to identify and understand own feelings, to accurately read and comprehend emotions in others, to develop empathy for others, to express and manage emotions, to self-regulate behaviour and to form social relationships.1 At this stage, the tasks of parents and professionals working with children are to build up children’s emotion management and self-regulation skills and to encourage them to connect with others. At the same time, it is still important to strengthen their empathy as well as their abilities to comprehend, read and express emotions.

Emotional Management and Self-regulation

Self-regulation is “the ability to monitor and manage one’s thinking, attention, feelings, and behaviour to accomplish goals” (Thompson, 2009, p.33). Self-regulation is closely associated with emotional development. Emotion-related self-regulation is defined as “processes used to manage and change if, when, and how (e.g., how intensely) one experiences emotions and emotion-related motivational and physiological states, as well as how emotions are expressed behaviorally” (Eisenberg, Spinrad and Eggum, 2010, p.497).

Development of Emotion Regulation

In the first few months, babies largely dependent on their carers to help them regulate their emotions by satisfying their basic physiological needs and comforting. Individual differences in temperament as a biological predisposition may govern the extent of their reactivity to external stimulation and their ease to change from one emotional state to another. So some babies may react strongly and quickly to stimulation or take longer time to soothe while some are quiet and soothable.2 Soon they may show very brief attempts to manage their experiences such as sucking on their own fists to calm themselves or shutting down and fallen asleep to repeated stimulation.3 With the emotional support of parents, children’s self-regulating abilities increase slowly. When they can express in words, language becomes an important element in the development of self-regulatory strategies2. They will tell the adults when they need help and comfort.

By age 3, young children are more capable of holding their impulses briefly. They may try to soothe themselves by leaving an emotionally arousing situation or seeking comfort from the carer. Starting from 4 years old, children are capable of controlling their impulses by using different strategies such as trying to engage in other activities or self-talk to remind themselves of what they have to do, e.g. “I will wait till mum returns to eat the cookie”. They are more able to follow rules without close monitoring by adults. Of course there will be moments of regression if children are tired or under stress. At 5 years old, their emotions are more complex and can be mixed2. They are more capable of controlling own emotions and may use more logical problem solving.4

When children enter kindergarten, their social world is more than just the family. Social development grows hand-in-hand with emotional and cognitive development. They learn to observe more social rules as well as to get on with peers. Formation of friendship begins at this stage and peers will have an effect on their regulation of emotions. They learn to read the emotional cues of their peers, developed empathy and learn to help with the needs of the others. Often, the emotional cues of the peers serve to modulate their response although it may not be an appropriate response, e.g. when there is conflict over toys.2

Parents as Emotion Coach

Responsive parenting is characterized by having mutual, synchronized interaction with the child, as well as being sensitive and responsive to the child’s signals.  It helps children develop secure attachment5 which gives a sense of predictability, safety, and responsiveness in their social environments. It also supports children to self-soothe and regulate their emotions.

Being a responsive parent has similar qualities as an ‘emotion coach’ – a parenting style described by John Gottman.6 In his studies, children of emotion coaches were found to be responsive and quick to recover from stress, had better emotional responsiveness and self-control than children raised in other parenting styles. They could notice and react to other children’s emotional cues and control their negative emotions in conflicts. Follow-up study also showed that these children had better academic performance, social competence, emotional well-being and physical health.

There are 5 key steps to emotion coaching6:

  1. Be aware of a child’s emotions
  2. Recognize emotional expression as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
  3. Listen empathetically and validate a child’s feelings
  4. Label emotions in words a child can understand
  5. Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problems at hand

Here are some notes for steps 1 to 4 while elaboration for step 5 will be made in the next section. Parents and carers are to be sensitive to children’s emotions by picking up their nonverbal cues and active listening to children. It is important to understand children’s temperament and accept their emotions fully, be it positive or negative. This helps safely broaden the child’s emotional range7. Spend time with the child and be calm and patient. Try to experience his emotions and feel for him. Respect his emotions. Self-soothing acts such as thumb-sucking may still exist in preschool-aged children. Parents do not need to over-react but try to comfort the child and find out what is the stress for him. Pretend play and storytelling are good means for a child to communicate and learn from the imaginary roles about emotions. Reflect his feeling using ‘feeling words’ such as ‘angry’, ‘disappointed’ and ‘satisfied’ to his level of understanding. By doing the strategies described, children will usually calm down and develop a sense of trust with the carer. It helps them to find the emotional balance7 or bring the emotion system into equilibrium2.

Problem Solving and Positive Discipline

When there are conflict situations, children still need guidance from adults to gradually learn to think of better alternatives to resolve conflicts. Some of the coping strategies parents and carers may suggest to children include asking children to rate on a mood meter, taking deep breaths, using private self-talk, reframing negative situations and stepping back from the conflict situation8.

Sometimes children may be too overwhelmed by their emotions. Providing structure, guidance and limits under a trusting relationship with the child makes the child feel safe and regain the emotional balance6,7. An emotion coach also owns the ‘base of power’ or the authority as a parent. Gottman (2011, p.126) quoted Haim Ginott: “(1) All feelings are permissible; not all behavior is permissible. And, (2) The parent-child relationship is not a democracy; it is the parent who determines what behavior is permissible.” Other than an emotion coach, parents and carers have the responsibility of guiding the child to follow social rules and behave in a socially acceptable way. Setting ground rules with the use of praises and encouragement helps children culture desirable behaviour and build up their self-confidence.

Asserting the authority as a parent would be necessary, particularly in certain situations, to help children regulate their emotions. For instance, when children have serious misbehaviour or show manipulating behaviour, emotion coaching will have to be postponed.6 Positive behaviour management strategies may be used firmly with the aims to let the child calm down, understand the consequence of his behaviour and practise more appropriate behaviour. In addition, coaching children’s emotions is inappropriate at such times when parents are in distress, have no time or when there is an audience.

Promoting Emotion Regulation outside Home

There are some children who may be at risk of emotion/behavior problems which could be associated with their temperamental characteristics or experiences in social context. It may be useful to understand what the emotion is underneath the behaviour (e.g. hitting out of anger or desire to show off) and whether it serves an immediate goal (e.g. throwing tantrum to seek attention) or a long-term goal (e.g. aggression towards one peer to keep the friendship of another peer)11. Carers and teachers can offer supportive management12 accordingly. Social skills and emotional competencies may be taught through incidental teaching, small group activities, peer coaching and buddy skills training7 in classroom or social groups.

Emotion self-regulation is closely related to executive functions in the brain including ability to follow directions, taking turn and sharing, and paying attention. These three skills were rated by US kindergarten teachers in a study as the most important socioemotional learning skills needed for school readiness.13 Intervention programmes focusing on emotion knowledge and cognitive control have been developed with supporting evidence9,13. However, intervention programmes with similar foci are lacking locally. One such first attempt was a local preschool project developed to enhance self-regulation and emotion monitoring.10 More validated evidence is still needed for the efficacy of the programme.

For children having persistent or intensive problems, pre-primary teachers and social workers may make use of the Comprehensive Child Development Service referral system to refer them to Maternal and Child Health Centres for initial assessment. The Child Assessment Centres accept referrals from medical doctors and psychologists for multidisciplinary assessment and provide interim support. Social workers’ assessment on the child’s family circumstances, familial emotional interaction and parenting practices is also necessary for comprehensive timely intervention.


  1. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004a). Children’s emotional development Is built into the architecture of their brains: Working Paper No. 2.
  2. Fox, N. A. (1998). Temperament and regulation of emotion in the first years of life. Pediatrics, 102(Supplement E1), 1230-1235.
  3. Murray, L. (2014) The Psychology of Babies. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.
  4. Thompson, R. A. (2009). Doing what doesn’t come naturally: The development of self-regulation. Zero to Three Journal, 30(2), 33-39.
  5. Department of Health (2017) Emotional Development of Young Children Part I: From Infancy to Toddlerhood. 'Parent Child e-Link' e-newsletter for Professionals.
  6. Gottman, J. (2011). Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. Simon and Schuster.
  7. Centre of Community Child Health (2016). Behaviour and emotional regulation. Community Paediatric Review, 24,2.
  8. Shauna,L., Tominey, S. L., O’Bryon, E. C., Rivers, S. E., & Shapses, S. (2017). Teaching Emotional Intelligence in Early Childhood. Young Children, 72(1).
  9. Eisenberg, N., Spinrad, T. L., & Eggum, N. D. (2010). Emotion-related self-regulation and its relation to children's maladjustment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 6, 495-525.
  10. Early Childhood and Elementary Education Division, School of Continuing Education, Hong Kong Baptist University (2017). Report on the Research Project for Promoting Young Children’s Self-Regulation Abilities 2014-2016.
  11. Thompson, R. A. (2011). Emotion and emotion regulation: Two sides of the developing coin. Emotion Review, 3(1), 53-61.
  12. Department of Health (2012) Chapter 6 Management of Children’s Behavioural, Emotional and Learning Problems in Pre-primary Children Development and Behaviour Management - Teacher Resource Manual. HKSAR.
  13. Bierman K., Greenberg M. & Abenavoli R. (2017) Promoting Social and Emotional Learning in Preschool. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.