Social and emotional development for preschoolers

Ages 3-5 years

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What to expect from preschooler emotions

At around 3-4 years your preschooler will probably:

  • use words to describe basic feelings like sad, happy, angry and excited
  • feel sorry and understand she should apologise when she has done something wrong – although you’ll probably need to give plenty of reminders
  • feel generous and show that she understands the idea of sharing – but don’t expect her to share all the time.

At 4-5 years, your preschooler will probably:

  • use words to describe more complex feelings like frustration, annoyance and embarrassment
  • hide the truth about something if she feels guilty, embarrassed or frightened
  • be better at managing strong emotions like anger, frustration and disappointment, and have fewer tantrums.

By the time she’s five, your child will probably:

  • use words to describe complex feelings like guilt and jealousy
  • be more aware of her feelings towards others and act on them – for example, your child might be kind to friends and family and want to help you more
  • try hard to follow the rules to avoid getting in trouble.


Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your behaviour and your reactions to feelings and the things happening around you.

It includes being able to:

  • regulate reactions to emotions like frustration or excitement
  • calm down after something exciting or upsetting
  • focus on a task
  • refocus attention on a new task
  • control impulses
  • learn behaviour that helps you get along with other people.

Here are some tips for helping your preschooler learn self-regulation:

  • Talk about emotions with your child. When your child struggles with a difficult feeling, encourage her to name the feeling and what caused it. Wait until the emotion has passed if that’s easier.
  • Have clear rules that help your child understand what behaviour you expect – for example, ‘Use your words to show your feelings’.
  • Praise your child when she shows self-control and follows the rules. For example, ‘I liked the way that you shared with Sam when he asked’.

Play and friendships

There’s a big range of normal when it comes to preschoolers making friends. Some children seem to make friends easily and get energy from being around lots of other people. Other children might be slower to warm up and need time to watch what happens before joining in with a group.

Making friends is an important part of your child’s development at preschool. As your child plays with others, she builds skills that help her with friendships now and in the future. These are skills like sharing, taking turns, cooperating, listening to others and managing disagreement.

For example, when children decide to play in the home corner, they have to decide what roles to take – not everyone can be mum! And if they all want to be mum, or they have different ideas about what mums do, they have to work it out.

Helping your preschooler with social skills

Giving your child the chance to play with other children from preschool or playgroup can help her develop friendships.

You can start by talking with your child about who she plays with. Then you can talk to the other parents about playdates, either at your home, at a local park or somewhere else that gives the children plenty of space and things to play with.

You can also help your child learn about being a good friend as part of everyday family life. Talking and listening are also important skills for friendship – for example, showing interest in what others are saying and asking questions. Family meals can be a great time to role-model these skills and give your child a chance to practise them.

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