June 15, 2022

5 Emotional Needs of Preschoolers and Ways to Support Them

Learn how to meet a child’s emotional needs in 5 different ways. Healthy emotional development is a recipe for lifelong success!

Lorena Vidaurre, Ph.D.
Lorena Vidaurre, Ph.D.
A mother is embracing her child in a grassy area. She is comforting him and providing him a piece of an apple. She is holding the main portion while he holds a piece.

Meeting the emotional needs of a child builds their confidence and resilience — and sets them up for a successful future.

Meeting your child’s physical needs is usually easy — provide food, water, shelter, clothes, and somewhere to potty! But what about emotional needs? 

The emotional needs of your child aren’t as easy to see — and the ways kids “ask” you to meet their emotional needs can be frustrating. If you don’t know what to look for, you might miss their cues. 

Preschoolers have the same emotional needs as older children. (And surprisingly — the same as adults!) The ways they ask for help and how we can meet them are unique to their age.

What Are Emotional Needs?

Emotional needs are what help your little one develop an emotional life. They are part of your child’s emotional development. Just like learning the alphabet, young children need to learn about emotions. Emotional development includes:

  • Identifying emotions in themselves and others
  • Learning the different ways to show emotions and what’s appropriate and inappropriate
  • How to regulate (calm down) after feeling big emotions

Healthy emotional development means your child will gain confidence and high self-esteem. This also means your child will have better relationships and be more resilient. Healthy emotional development even has a positive impact on their academic performance. [1]

When a child’s emotional needs are met, it makes parenting easier. Tantrums and power struggles often come down to unmet needs. When we learn to meet those needs, our children’s behavior improves — sometimes immediately!

A child’s emotional needs can only be met through their relationships. And the most important relationships are the ones they have with family — their parents and grandparents. 

So how can you meet the emotional needs of your child? Below are five essential needs and ideas for how you can support them.

1. Safety

Young children need to know that their home is a predictable place and there’s someone there to protect them. This doesn’t just mean keeping a safe physical environment. Your child also needs boundaries to feel safe — even though they will push against them.

It’s frustrating when your child tests your boundaries.It’s one of the quickest ways to get your blood boiling. But don’t take it personally. Your child is testing you — they want to know you’re bigger than their emotional storms. Your child needs you to keep them safe even when they protest. 

Another way to keep boundaries in your home is to have a consistent daily routine. Your child will know what to expect from their day, helping them feel secure. Children feel anxious when their life is uncertain — just like adults do! Doing the same thing at the same time every day makes life predictable and gives them a sense of safety. 

Last, consistent discipline helps children feel safe. Your child wants to know that you’ll do what you said you would do. When your actions are consistent with your words, your child knows that you’re a safe and predictable person. They know they can trust you to keep your word.

Discipline doesn’t mean punishment — it’s related to the word disciple. In the same way God gently guides us like a Shepherd does, we should gently and firmly guide our child’s behavior to do what’s right and good. Remember, God cares about the posture of our hearts. It is possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Encourage your child to be motivated by pleasing the Lord — not to please others or themselves. 

You’ll be meeting your child’s emotional needs by providing safety through boundaries, routines, and discipline.

2. Respect

Respect is an emotional need for everyone in relationships. Sometimes parents demand respect from their children without giving it. In reality, respect has to come from parents first before children can show respect.

Your child sees you as their example — model respect by showing kindness and fairness. Speak without sarcasm, yelling, or belittling. If you do lose your temper, apologize. This won’t make your children respect you less. It will teach them to make it right when they’ve hurt someone.

Jesus led by example — he treated the “least of these” with love and kindness. Let us try to follow the example that our Lord and Savior set for us!

When children feel respected, they learn they are valuable. Meeting this emotional need is the foundation for self-respect and self-esteem.   

An essential part of respect is autonomy. Autonomy is a person’s ability to make their own choices. Children need to practice making decisions. It gives them an appropriate amount of power — instead of picking power struggles with you. Making their own choices helps foster their independence and confidence. 

As often as you can, allow your child to make decisions. Provide parent-approved limited choices: 

“Red cup or blue cup?” 

“Tennis shoes or boots today?” 

Respect their decision, even if you wouldn’t make that choice. Of course you know what’s practical or easiest — but your child is in the school of life. Leave some things up to them. 

Let your child learn through natural consequences. If they chose to wear their boots on a hot July afternoon, they might say, “Wearing boots to the park wasn't the best idea — my feet were hot!” Practicing autonomy is the best way for children to develop self-confidence.

3. Connection

Another emotional need in relationships is connection. Did you know that children sometimes misbehave because they need connection? If you’re too busy or distracted to connect with your child — they’ll probably act out. Negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Instead of being annoyed at the way your child is asking for connection, try to empathize. Connection is built when you spend time with your child, learning who they are and what they like. 

Practice listening attentively when they talk, engaging them in conversation or play, and showing that you enjoy their company. This makes them feel seen and loved.

There’s also a deeper layer to building connection: Empathy.

You build a deep emotional connection when you take your child’s perspective and show you understand their emotions. Showing empathy makes your child feel safe to share their true feelings with you.

Empathy is also an antidote to tantrums. Your child wants to be seen and heard but isn’t mature enough to tell you that. 

Often, our first response to a tantrum is anger or annoyance, especially if the tantrum is over something that seems silly. While it seems foolish to us, it feels genuinely heartbreaking to them — they don't yet understand life the way we do. When we try to correct them right away or let them know they overreacted, we miss an opportunity to connect.

Instead, name your child’s feelings and offer empathy. Is your child feeling disappointed, frustrated, or that something was unfair? Those are big feelings, even for adults. Help your child identify what they’re feeling by asking non-judgemental questions.

“Are you feeling disappointed that your toy broke? Is that why you threw it?”

“Are you feeling left out because your sister won’t play with you? Does that feel like she doesn’t love you? Is that why you hit her?”

Show them compassion with your words and actions. Offer a hug or pats on the back, and remain calm until they calm down. 

“It’s hard when things don’t work out the way you want them to.”

“It doesn’t feel good to be left out. I understand why you feel that.”

Next, explain why your child’s response was inappropriate and offer a different way for them to respond next time. Have them fix their mistake if they made a mistake or hurt someone. 

“We don’t throw food, even when we’re disappointed. Please pick it up and wipe the floor. What can we try next time, so it won’t break?”

“We don’t hit others, even when our feelings are hurt. Let’s bring your sister some ice and you can tell her how you feel. What could you say to let her know you’re sad that you hurt her?”

They’ll be more willing to fix their mistakes and try a new response, all because of your empathy.

4. Belonging

Children need to know they’re part of something bigger than themselves. The first place they experience this is in their family.

A sense of belonging doesn’t happen automatically in a family. Children need to know they have a place in that family. That what they do matters. That their feelings and opinions are valued. When a child feels their family wouldn’t be the same without them, they feel significant.

Here are some ways you can create a sense of belonging for your preschool child:

  • Give your child age-appropriate responsibility. Teach them to water the plants, feed the pets, pick out their own clothes, or help set the table. Young children love to be helpful.
  • Ask for your child’s input. During dinnertime conversation, ask for their thoughts and opinions. Let them decide small things, like which park to visit or what order to do chores in. 
  • Encourage them when they show good character. When your child shows compassion for a sibling or gratitude for help — tell them what you see! Let your child know what you see in them and show them how that’s essential to the family. 

Eventually, we want our children to be a part of the Family of God. If your child knows their place in your family, they’ll know how to translate their gifts to God’s kingdom.

5. Unconditional Love

Children need to know they are loved and accepted no matter what

Children build their understanding of God’s love based on the love they receive from their parents. [2] Although we can’t love as perfectly as God does, we can choose to show unconditional love in the face of our own disappointment and frustration.

Don’t hold grudges or withdraw affection from a child when they misbehave. Some parents think this will teach children better behavior — but it only creates emotional fear and uncertainty. 

Instead, focus on their actions while building up who they are. Can you spot the difference in the example below?

“Natalie, your words are hurtful and unkind. I know that’s not who you really are. How can you make it right by being kind to your sister? What can you do or say to her?”

“Natalie, you’re so rude. Stop being mean to your sister!”

One is focused on actions while still affirming the child’s character. The other uses labels to shame the child — leading her to believe that she is a hurtful person because she said something hurtful. This label will become a part of her identity when instead, we should be teaching that we aren’t defined by our sin but by who God made us.

Allow your child to grow into who they’re meant to be — not who you want or expect them to be. Sometimes our expectations and future dreams can keep us from seeing our child for who they really are.

God already gives us unconditional love through what Christ did for us on the cross. We can ask for His help to show our children that same love and know we’re meeting a core emotional need.

The Bottom Line

Meeting a child’s emotional needs isn’t always easy. The good news is: you don’t have to be perfect. Pray for God to help you. When you make a mistake or sin, ask your child and God for forgiveness. Then ask God to bring healing to your child’s emotions and restoration to your relationship. God specializes in healing and restoring relationships!

Your child doesn’t want you to be perfect — they just want you to be present and see them. 

Make sure your child feels safe with boundaries and routines. Respect your child’s choices and help them learn from their mistakes. Show your little one that you see them and care about their thoughts and feelings.

Make them a part of family decisions and give them responsibility. Let them know you’re on their side by showing unconditional love during the easy and difficult moments. 

When you do these things, you’ll set your child up for future success and meet their emotional needs.

Did you have any aha moments when reading? Drop a comment below to tell us what impacted you!

[1] https://selfsufficientkids.com/emotional-needs-of-a-child/

[2] https://www.familylife.com/articles/topics/parenting/foundations/spiritual-development/parental-love-and-acceptance/