Raising a preschool child and mental health (ages 3 to 5)

At ages 3, 4 and 5, children are still learning to manage their emotions and behaviours.

Your preschool child might be your little helper one moment. The next they’re a handful, testing limits or refusing to cooperate.

Like other parents, you might worry about their social interactions and friendships. You might also wonder if you’re setting the right boundaries.

While this can be stressful, it’s all part of raising a preschooler.

Doing what you can to support your own mental health and wellbeing is important. It can also help you foster your child’s resilience and relationships.
Illustration of child asking mother where eggs come from

Understanding preschooler emotions

Your child keeps on growing through a wide range of experiences and emotions from ages 3 to 5.

They’re becoming aware of feelings such as jealousy and frustration. They’re also learning how to manage their happy and excited feelings.

Your preschooler continues to learn how to:
  • understand emotions and why they happen
  • express the words that match their feelings
  • identify how others might feel
  • develop and practise dealing with their emotions.
Listen to this Emerging Minds podcast to understand more about children’s emotions.

Supporting emotional development

As your preschooler grows and learns to interact socially, their sense of self develops.

They start feeling more complicated emotions like shyness, elation, embarrassment, shame, pride and empathy.

It’s important to help your child learn to understand and manage these types of emotions. This can help them to:
  • listen to their feelings
  • ask for help when they feel sad or angry
  • recognise how others are feeling
  • begin to control their behaviour.
Here are some practical ways you can help your child better understand their emotions.

Use open-ended questions

Open-ended questions help younger children think and talk about what they’re feeling.

For example, ask your child, “Tell me about all the things you like (or don’t like) about going to the park.”

This gives your child an opportunity to name their emotions. It means you can offer support for any difficult feelings, which helps them learn coping skills.

It also provides you with a unique insight into your child’s world and what they value.

Talk about feelings

Encourage your child to share their feelings.

Start by being a role model. Talk to children about your own feelings in different situations. This can include acknowledging mistakes (for example, saying “I’m sorry”).

Help children who are developing language put their feelings into words. For example, you could say, “You’re smiling – you must be happy.”

When you practise naming emotions, you teach your child to learn about their feelings.

Listen to your child’s feelings, especially when they talk about things that worry them. Offer reassurance and comfort.

Help your child put words to how others are feeling as well. It’ll help them develop empathy.

Acknowledge your child’s distress

If your preschooler becomes upset, show them you understand what they’re feeling.

For example, “I can see you’re sad,” or “It’s okay to cry.”

This helps them identify their own emotions and reactions to different situations.

It teaches them that experiencing emotions is okay. It also shows them that you are someone they can talk to about how they’re feeling.

Your cues and support for their emotions can help your child feel loved and safe.

Prepare for situations that make your child nervous

Talk to your child about how you can prepare for events they feel nervous or anxious about.

For example, if a child is worried about being dropped off at kindergarten, make plans with them about what to do.

Remind them of those strategies: “Remember those ideas for what you’ll do when you get to kindy? Shall we go through them again together?”

Your preschooler will learn that tough times are a part of life. They will feel supported to face those moments.

Visit the Raising Children Network website to learn about emotional development through play.

Building relationships

Supportive relationships help children to connect with others and build friendships.

Children vary in their ability to connect with others. There are many ways that you play a key role in supporting your preschool child to:
  • develop social skills
  • interact with others
  • form friendships with children of their own age.


Your relationship with your child

Showing your child warmth and affection is important for their development.

Establish a safe and nurturing relationship with your preschooler in these ways.
  • Learn how your child likes affection. Show them regular affection in the way they enjoy – for example, a hug or a kiss.
  • Connect through play or activities. Discuss what they like or any fears they have, for example when taking a walk or watching a movie. This way you can discover what’s important to them and solve problems together.
  • Do things that extend their development. For example, build blocks or prepare a simple meal together. Encourage your child by saying: “I can see you’re trying hard. Well done.”


Relationships with other adults

Relationships with other adults foster a greater sense of connection for your preschooler.

Help your child connect to the people in your family who are important to you.

You can do this by arranging for your child to spend time with your family and friends.

You can also encourage this by:
  • telling stories about family and friends to your child
  • looking through photos and sharing memories
  • including your child in group chats with family and friends, on the phone or online.
You can also build your child’s relationship with other adults through community connections. For example, taking them to the local library or community playgroups.

This encourages their sense of belonging.

Relationships with their peers

Playing with other children is an important part of your child’s development. It helps them learn about sharing and friendships.

Children under the age of 4 tend to play ‘alongside’ each other, rather than ‘with’ each other. This changes as they grow older.

You can start working on social skills with your preschooler at home.
  • Observe how your child responds in a range of situations. Try to get a picture of how well they manage emotions and what triggers difficult reactions.
  • Role model behaviours you’d like to see. For example, listening, sharing, taking turns and saying “please” and “thank you.”
  • Observe your preschooler’s play with other children. Provide gentle encouragement when they show signs of overwhelm or withdrawal.
  • Intervene if needed. For example, encourage sharing and taking turns when they want the same toy as another child.
  • Try to avoid being overprotective or taking over if your child is shy or uncertain. Instead, help them develop strategies for managing fears and worries.
  • Set clear and consistent limits if your child’s behaviour is challenging. Spell out any consequences in advance. Be fair and encouraging.


Developing empathy

Empathy is important. It involves understanding the emotions of others and responding in appropriate ways.

Try to role model positive relationships and interact with others in a kind and caring way.
  • Empathise with your child. For example, in a thunderstorm you could say “Are you scared? You can stay close to me until the thunder passes.”
  • Talk with your child about how others are feeling. For example, “Ali is feeling sad because you took his toy truck. Please give Ali his truck back. Let’s choose another one to play with.”
  • Show your child how they can show empathy. For example, “Mum is thirsty. Let’s get her a drink of water.”
  • Use pretend play to talk about feelings as you play with your child.
  • Read books with your young child about feelings and supporting others.
  • Validate your child’s difficult emotions. For example, “I can see you’re upset. It’s okay.”


Establishing boundaries and routines

Illustration of father watching children play in a sandbox

Routines and rules can be a way to spend time together and have fun as a family.

They can also build social skills and healthy habits for your child.

Setting boundaries and rules at home teaches your preschooler how to follow simple instructions. This can help them prepare for childcare or school.

Frame rules positively

Rules don’t have to be negative. Try framing them as positive statements about how you’ll look after and respect each other.

Simple positive rules for young children include saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ using your inside voice and taking care of toys.

Provide reasons

Give reasons for why you’ve set a boundary or made a rule. For example, “Bedtime is now so you can get enough sleep.”

This helps young children to learn and accept limits. It also gives them an understanding of what you expect of them in other similar situations.

Follow through

Your preschooler might try to push boundaries, or bend or break the rules.

With firm and gentle reminders, give them opportunities to change their behaviour. Ensure they understand what the appropriate behaviour is for the situation.

If they ignore these reminders, you might need to bring in consequences.

Here are 2 examples.

  1. Withdrawal from the situation (quiet time). You might use this when your child’s behaviour is unsafe or disruptive.
  2. Withdrawal of privileges. For example, remove a toy that your child is using in an unsafe way.

Try not to rely on these strategies alone. As often as possible, give your child attention for their positive behaviours and maintain a warm relationship.

Recognise their efforts

Be sure to notice and praise or thank your child when they meet expectations.

Your preschooler might enjoy a checklist or reward chart to track how they're doing.

Supporting transitions

Your preschooler is becoming more independent.

They might also be spending more time outside the home, such as at childcare or kindergarten, or preparing for school.

For many children, attending childcare is often their first separation from family.

This can be an exciting time. It’s also common for children to have a range of feelings, including being sad or anxious.

It’s natural to worry about how they’ll get along without you.

Remember, you’re already promoting your child’s confidence and resilience by:
As your child starts preschool, build relationships with your child’s educators to gain insights and work with them to support your child.

Transition to a new learning environment

Your five-year-old might be starting school.

While 4-year-olds attend preschool (also known as ‘kindergarten’ or an ‘early learning service’).

In some states, preschool is available for 3-year-olds.

Prepare your child for the transition to preschool or school in these ways.
  • Arrange orientation visits so they can see the new space and meet new educators.
  • Plan to stay for a while at the start of the first day or days, where possible.
  • Provide your child with specific information about the upcoming transition. For example, practise the drive or walk to preschool or school with them.
  • Read stories with main characters facing their first short separations from home.
  • Practise care routines with your preschooler at home (handwashing or brushing teeth)
  • Prepare them for them how to move from one activity to the next, even when they don’t want to. For example, “We’ll go inside after this jump on the trampoline.”
Go to the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby website to learn about preschool and tips for your child’s transition.

Visit the Raising Children Network website to find out how to prepare your child to start school.

Separation anxiety

Anxiety about new experiences is common in children.

Young children can feel anxiety about:
  • being around new people
  • changes in routine
  • being away from home.
Generally, clinging or crying in response to separation is normal for younger children. They may also complain of physical symptoms (for example, tummy aches).

The intensity of responses to this anxiety will vary from child to child. This can make it difficult for parents to know what’s normal and what’s not.

Your child may need more support if their anxiety about separation from you:
  • doesn’t go away over time
  • gets worse
  • interferes with their daily life and friendships.
For professional help, talk to a health professional.

Check out the Emerging Minds website to learn more about anxiety in preschoolers.

Seeking support for your preschool child

Children develop at different rates. Some children naturally take longer to develop certain skills compared to other children of the same age.

Developmental milestones provide a useful guide to children’s development.

If you're worried about your preschooler’s development, talk to a health professional.

Visit the Raising Children Network website to learn more about: 

Looking after your mental health and wellbeing

As your child spends more time in childcare or kinder, you may worry about their ability to cope.

You may feel upset for your preschooler if they’re finding it hard to be away from you, or to get along with other children. You might also feel guilty that you haven’t done enough to prepare them.

Be aware of your feelings. Try to make space for them and be kind to yourself.

If you’re struggling with your mental health and wellbeing, it’s important to get support.

This could include talking to family, friends or a healthcare professional.

Take the anxiety and depression test (K10).

Look after your mental health with our Wellbeing Action Tool.

Get mental health support.

Supporting someone caring for a preschooler

If you know a parent of a preschooler who’s stressed or struggling, asking how they’re doing is a good start.

Use these tips to talk to a parent you’re concerned about.

Further resources

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