Advice to Parents of Preschoolers

by Dr. Paul Meier

During the preschool years, rapid development takes place in the emotional life of the child, as well as in his socialization, language, reasoning ability, independence, and sexual identity.


Emotions play a very important part in the life of preschoolers. They express emotions more freely than many adults who have learned to suppress them. At about 3 years of age, children have many fears-fears of animals, of monsters, and even of “the big bad wolf.” They have trouble differentiating between fact and fantasy, and their parents need constantly to reassure them of their safety.

Between 3 and 4 years of age, children may express their anger in the form of temper tantrums. If you give them what they demand, they will continue to have tantrums. But if you grab them firmly by the shoulders and tell them to stop it, or even spank them if needed, the behavior will cease since it will serve no useful function.


People need people, and adults who don’t have genuine love relationships do not have good mental health-they have loneliness, emptiness, purposelessness and emotional pain. So teach your child to be a social creature by exposing him to other children his own age, especially of the same sex.

Nursery schools, if adequately staffed, can help speed up social development. And two or three mornings a week away from mother, at this age, benefits not only the child but gives the mother a break. Toward the beginning of the preschool years (age 3), the child will not interact freely with other children playing in the same area. But he will eventually become less self-centered and learn to feel empathy for others.

Psychologist Gary Collins states that childhood play serves at least four useful functions:

1) It permits discharge of energy; 2) it provides needed stimulation; 3) it helps children develop motor skills; and 4) it enables the child to act out and learn to understand adult roles.

Language and Reasoning Ability

Language and reasoning ability are areas of very rapid growth between the ages of 3 and 6. During these years, the child adds thousands of words to his vocabulary and begins to reason clearly. However, he continues to live in a small world in that he still thinks most events center around him, and he assumes that most people see things the way he does.


During these crucial years, the child takes great strides in becoming more self-sufficient. He learns to feed himself and even cut most of his own food. He learns to dress himself, perhaps with some parental guidance on what to wear. He becomes completely toilet-trained and less dependent upon the mother socially as he begins to make friends.

In any Christian home, a boy’s best friend during the preschool years should be his father. Fathers should get involved with both sons and daughters, but invest the greatest amount of time in their sons, while mothers give special attention to their daughters. I have heard many fathers say that they think the quality of time spent with their children is important-not the quantity. All I can say to that is “nonsense.” A large quantity of time is essential, and if you can improve its quality, so much the better.

Sexual Identity

The main reason that fathers should spend time with their preschool sons, and mothers with their young daughters, is that these are the years in which sexual identities become solidified. Children need a parent of the same sex to identify with and to model themselves after. Although no work is exclusively masculine or feminine, boys should be encouraged to help Daddy with his chores, and girls to help Mommy. This will facilitate the sexual identification process.

Children this age should no longer sleep with a parent of the opposite sex, a practice that is more common than you might think, especially in a one-parent home. Continue to give your children of both sexes warmth and affection, but try not to be overly stimulating to them. When they were younger, they could be with you when you dressed, used the restroom and took baths, but now politely yet firmly wean them of these activities. The children usually won’t object a great deal, and will react by demanding privacy themselves when they do these things. They’ll understand that it is just part of growing up.

When our children ask us questions about sex-related matters, the healthy response is to answer them truthfully, using plain language without showing embarrassment. Don’t tell them details they didn’t ask for, but be accurate and specific in your explanation.” Using a calm tone of voice, tell them that some things are talked about privately and done privately. For example, we shouldn’t allow our children at this age to play in the yard without any clothes on, but if our child is examining his genitals in bed at night when we happen to walk in on him, the best thing to do is ignore it, or politely ask him to leave his pajamas on.


The different approaches that parents take to family life greatly influence the personality of each child. One research study, which included personality testing, was done over a 17-year period on 64 young adults. It indicated that permissive home atmospheres tend to produce neurotic (including hypochondriac) and psychotic disturbances, especially in female children. Cold, permissive homes tend to result in sociopath personality disorders in young adult males. Cold, punitive homes tend to produce phobic and psychotic males. Excessively warm, permissive homes lead to strong anxiety and psychotic reactions in males.

Traits of Healthy Homes

Other studies have shown that a mother with self-worth, character and genuine love, and a father who has self-worth, character, genuine love and leadership qualities, will produce mentally healthy children who have a good self-image and relate well with others.


I would like to discuss both my own experiences and some research findings regarding 12 common problem areas for parents of preschoolers.

TV Violence

Psychiatric researchers at the University of Georgia recently conducted a study on emotional reactions of young children to TV violence. They showed three brief, violent TV episodes to 4- and 5-year-old children while continuously measuring the amount of emotional perspiration. The children were also shown two non-violent films.

As measured by their skin resistance, the children responded more emotionally to the violent episodes, and a week later they remembered them more vividly than the non-violent episodes.

The primary emotion expressed during violent scenes appeared to be fear. Violent scenes with human characters aroused more fear than did those with cartoon characters. The children were able to recall twice as many details about the human violence as they did about non-violent material.

The main lesson we can learn from this and similar studies is that our children’s minds, as well as our own, are like complex computers. What we feed into them is what will come out for years to come. Television can be a useful device, or it can be a great hindrance to the emotional and spiritual maturation of our children.

Handicapped Children

A recent study appearing in the British Medical Journal showed that “problems which children have with particular handicaps may well in their turn specifically affect aspects of their development and their parents’ attitude towards them.” Other studies have shown that handicapped children frequently become overly dependent, passive and somewhat withdrawn. They also learn to get strong secondary gains from illness-which means that their parents and others let them have their own way because they feel sorry for them.

If you have a handicapped child, don’t deny his handicap; encourage him to develop his independence. And don’t pity him-love him and trust his ability to overcome the handicap and to become a responsible individual.

How to Treat Twins

About one out of 86 births produces twins, and one-third of these are identical twins”. I think twins are a special blessing from the Lord. But having twins also gives the parents added responsibility. It’s an American tradition to dress twins alike and have them do everything alike, so they’ll be treated fairly. But studies have shown that this is not the best thing for them psychologically. It’s best to treat them as separate individuals. Respect differences in their tastes and opinions. Don’t reward, praise or punish them at the same time, but do so individually. It is better if they wear different styles of clothing, depending on their own tastes. It is even recommended that they attend different classes in school.


Bedwetting is a common problem during the preschool years. Statistics show that about 88 percent of all children quit wetting their beds by the time they reach 4 1/2 years of age, but about 8 to 10 percent will continue through age 6, as will about 1 to 2 percent even after high school graduation. The best thing to do is have the child clean up his own bed, as much as possible, without unnecessarily shaming him.

Encopresis (Soiling)

Soiling, like bedwetting, can be expected in the preschool years. I would encourage you to remember that the normal age for toilet training is between 1 1/2 and 4 years of age. If your child is over 4 and is still soiling from time to time, it would be best to consult a physician, preferably a child psychiatrist, who will be best equipped to handle such a problem.


Thumb-sucking is considered normal, and about one out of five children still suck their thumbs even after their sixth birthday. However, if your child is over 6 and still sucking his or her thumb regularly, it is usually considered to be a sign that the child is experiencing some anxiety; family counseling would probably be advisable.

Nail-biting, Nervous Tics and Stuttering

Don’t worry about moderate nail-biting. About 20 percent of college students still bite their nails. Nervous tics, however, such as constant squinting of the eyes, various inappropriate jerky motions and constant clearing of the throat, are signs of emotional conflicts requiring counseling, preferably by a trained psychiatrist. Tics usually go away as the conflicts are resolved. Stuttering in pre-school children is considered normal and should just be ignored. It nearly always goes away by age 6. Stuttering is common at this age because the child’s knowledge and vocabulary are increasing much more rapidly than his neurological ability to get all those words and thoughts expressed verbally. Becoming unduly excited about it only makes it worse, so just ignore stuttering, unless the child is over 6 years old.


I would advise strongly that you prevent your child from becoming obese. It will greatly hamper his self-worth and limit the kind of respect he will get from his peers. Elementary school children are very tactless and will broadcast any defect they see in other children.

Day-Care Centers

Some day-care centers are all right for short periods of time, but most of them are psychologically damaging to a child who stays there fivedays a week, eight or nine hours a day.

If you do put your child in a day-care center, be sure it has warm, loving, well-trained, multiple-mother substitutes. Freeman, Kaplan and Sadock’s Modern Synopsis of Psychiatry states that “inadequate facilities or personnel may be destructive to the proper psychological growth and development of children.”

Nightmares and Night Terrors

Nightmares and night terrors are also quite common in preschoolers. Because there are many things that a 3- to 6-year-old doesn’t understand, he spends a large portion of his sleep-time in dreaming. Therefore, most children will have some nightmares or night terrors. Night terrors involve thrashing around in bed and crying outat times, but unlike nightmares, don’t wake the children up. In fact, you may have a hard time waking them during a night terror even if you shake them hard. Most children have them for only a short period of time; they go away as the conflicts become resolved.

I recommend that you keep a nightlight in your preschooler’s room, so he can see that there aren’t any animals or bogeymen. If your child comes to your bed at night after a nightmare, he should be taken back to his own bed and calmly spoken to for a few moments.

Sleep-walking is also common in young children, and is nothing to worry about if they stay in the house!

Childhood Depression

Childhood depression frequently follows the loss of a loved object, a divorce, the death of a parent, or the transfer of a father overseas. Weekly counseling sessions usually meet with success. Childhood depression is often manifested by social withdrawal, prolonged sadness, and either a marked increase or decrease in activity level.

Stress in Preschoolers

Stress is experienced by people of all ages. Some stress is beneficial and necessary for our psychological development. Preschoolers have many adjustments to make, and are moving rapidly from the dependent toddler stage to the independent school-age stage. Simple events like going to the pediatrician, moving into a new home, or having a new baby sister can all be very stressful for a preschool child.

The best way we, as parents, can reduce these stresses for our children is to prepare them for these events by talking about them ahead of time in words that children will understand. Always be truthful. It can even be distressing for children to go to sleep at night, only to wake up and find a strange baby-sitter in place of their parents. We always tell our children when we are going out, even if they will be asleep before the baby-sitter comes, so they won’t be surprised.

(The above material was published by FOCUS ON THE FAMILY, 1991)

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