The age of preschool is an emotionally confusing time for young children. Between the ages of 3 and 5 years old, children are working through a lot of insecurities and fears that they do not yet have the language skills to articulate.
These common worries tend to surface in their every day lives through sadness and tantrums, and it can be difficult to differentiate the causes of the outbursts. In an effort to better understand our sweet little ones, here are 3 common fears that your preschooler isn’t yet able to tell you:
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1. The fear that their behavior determines your love for them
Young children are highly attuned to adult’s facial expressions, tone of voice, and verbal inflection. When adults respond to children’s behavior with yelling, a stern or harsh tone, or lashing out, children often become scared and feel that they are the cause of the parent’s stress. This can lead children to believe that their parent’s love for them is contingent on their good behavior.
In his book, Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn outlines the difference between conditional and unconditional love in the following way: “[There is a distinction between] loving kids for what they do and loving them for who they are. The first sort of love is conditional, which means children must earn it by acting in ways we deem appropriate, or by performing up to our standards. The second sort of love is unconditional: it doesn’t hinge on how they act, whether they’re successful or well behaved or anything else” (11).
Every parent wants a well-behaved, well-adjusted and emotionally regulated child that doesn’t act out. But the reality of the preschool years is that children will act out, and it is our mission as parents to guide our child’s behavior in such a way that they know what is expected of them, while also knowing that they are deeply loved.
What you can do:
Try to remain as calm as possible when managing your child’s behavior. Remind your child that your love for them never changes, even when they misbehave.
Clearly state your behavior expectations and re-affirm your confidence in their ability to do it the next time.
Apologize when your reaction is harsher than you intended it to be. By admitting that adults also make mistakes, children can learn that mistakes are part of learning.
2. The fear that you will leave and not come back
Attachment to a parent is the very first survival mechanism that an infant learns when they leave the womb. That attachment grows stronger as the child learns more about the world and how big of a place it really is. By 3 years old, most children are ready to venture out for short periods of time in order to explore and then return to the safety of their parents. The problem is that children have a limited ability to gauge the concept of time, so when children are away from their “safe base,” minutes can feel like hours and hours can feel like days. This leads children to fear the worst: that mommy and daddy aren’t coming back.
What you can do:
Give your child an object of yours to hold during times when you are away. It can be anything that reminds them of you…a picture, a hair tie, a small trinket. This gives them a physical connection, a “piece of Mommy” to hold on to until you return.
Tell your child what is going to happen. Give them a predictable time frame when you will be back, for example, “Daddy will be back after your nap.”
Try to avoid using the “Mommy is leaving” threat when trying to get your child to leave a public place. This is confusing for children and can lead to a lack of trust when there comes a time when you truly are leaving them.
3. The fear that they aren’t good enough
Inadequacy is a huge fear of preschoolers, and it surfaces in different ways. This can be the child that cries because their picture didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to, or the child who says, “it’s too hard” and doesn’t even want to try. The fear of inadequacy becomes more prevalent in the preschool years because children are at a developmental stage where they begin to view themselves in relation to other children. Comparison makes a child question their worth in a brand new way, and these are big feelings for young children to sort out. The development of a child’s self esteem begins in these early preschool years when they begin to evaluate themselves in relation to their peers in terms of how well they do certain tasks and what other children think of them.
What you can do:
Point out your child’s growth and praise their willingness to try new things.
Place more emphasis on the child’s effort on a given task than the finished product.
Validate children’s feelings of inadequacy and promote problem solving with phrases like “I can see that you aren’t happy with this. What are some ideas to make this better?”
Build your child up: help bring to light all of their very best qualities and how those qualities mean more to you than their performance.