Ideas & Advice

Parenting Preschoolers: The Do’s and Don’ts

Parenting Preschoolers: The Do's and Don'ts
Written by Publishing Team

Parenting preschoolers is about establishing limits and routines. This will help your child feel more secure and you feel more confident as a parent.

“You’re a bad mommy!”

“I don’t like you anymore, daddy!”

If you parent a preschooler, chances are, you may have heard some variation of this yelled at you recently. This can be a frustrating or even hurtful experience, but is common behavior for preschoolers.

But you might not realize that this might also indicate that you’re a terrific parent, because your child is likely responding to you setting a limit on their behavior.

Preschoolers tend to like to know why. A preschooler’s brain grows rapidly, and a 2012 study documents that a child’s brain will quadruple in size and reach 90% of its adult volume before the age of 6.

The result of this growth is that young children learn that things don’t just happen to and around them. They begin to understand that there is an explanation connected to almost everything. Hence, all the “whys.”

A 2009 study indicated that children aged 3 to 5 may be motivated to seek answers about how things work, and they will often keep asking questions until they get an answer.

Testing limits and learning answers often drives preschoolers’ behavior.

Young children don’t test behavioral limits because they are malicious or trying to upset you. Preschool-aged kids are curious and simply do not know what will happen if, say, they touch something that is hot, pull the cat’s tail, or hit another child on the playground.

It’s a parent and caregiver’s job to provide those answers to children in the form of limits, boundaries, and rules.

Setting clear limits and consequences doesn’t typically crush a child’s creativity or hinder their growth. Rather, you are providing exactly what they want: structure and an explanation.

Establishing limits and rules and enforcing them consistently creates a reliable and predictable structure that makes your child feel safe and secure, which can also build confidence in your parenting.

The preschoolers years are a phase of rapid growth characterized by common childhood behaviors, such as:

  • imaginative play
  • seeking out other children to play with
  • showing empathy
  • offering to be a helper
  • simple instructions
  • playing by the rules and taking turns during games

Parenting is a tough job that doesn’t come with an instruction manual.

Here are some common parenting strategies to consider that may help you navigate these magical years and put your child on a track to success.

Set limits and enforce rules consistently

Consistency is king with preschoolers. Once you establish a rule or limit, it’s important to enforce it the same way each time your child steps over the line.

Following through consistently provides your child with a sense of security and stability. They learn that you will be there for them if they have trouble regulating their emotions or when they are trying to do something is not safe for them.

Enforcing limits consistently can also boost your confidence as a parent as you begin to see the effects of providing stability to your child over time.

practice routine

Preschoolers typically thrive on predictable routines. Try keeping the essential rhythms of your day the same from week to week, month to month, including:

  • meal times
  • getting dressed
  • leaving for school
  • bed time

Following regular routines can help establish an expectation that you and your child will follow the routine. And when a young child can anticipate what will happen next in their day, they may be more apt to transition to each event or activity smoothly.

Respect that transitions can be challenging

At the same time, preschoolers do not always want to stop playing to eat or get to ready for school or bed.

Try offering several reminders, or use a timer, to help your child understand that one activity will end and another will begin. You may also want to consider building extra time into your schedule for transitions to account for how long it may take your child to transition.

Understand that transitioning from one thing to another can be difficult and uncomfortable for your preschooler. Approaching challenges with empathy and patience can also help smooth over these tough moments.

Praise good behavior

If you feel like all you do is say, “no,” “stop,” or, “be careful” to your preschooler, you are not alone.

But look for the times when your child says “thank you” without prompting, or shares a toy with a playmate, or puts their shoes on while you’re scrambling to leave for school.

Praise them for their actions, and be very descriptive about what specifically pleases you. For instance, you might say “I noticed how polite you just were by saying please and thank you. That makes me very proud.”

Lots of preschool behavior is based on a child’s desire for an explanation. When they hear praise, they are hearing an answer they like, and they will keep looking for that response from you.

Offer options

Preschool-aged kids are slowly learning that the world can be a big — and perhaps scary — place. They want some control, and you might see that desire play out in a tantrum.

Try giving your child some small choices when the consequences do not matter to you. Red or blue socks? Strawberry yogurt for a snack or peach?

This way, your child gets a sense of being in charge without performing the daily routine too much.

Validate their feelings

Whether your child is sad, angry, or joyful, take time to notice what they are feeling and to validate their feelings in a particular situation. When your preschool child feels heard by you, you are again providing that sense of security and stability they crave.

For example, say your child just learned that a good friend at preschool is moving away, and says they are sad and will miss their friend. Instead of saying “Oh well, you’ll make new friends!” tell your child that you hear that they are sad, that it is hard to lose good friends, and you are glad your child felt safe telling you about it.

By validating their emotional experience, you are providing context to their big, sometimes confusing, feelings that they have at this age.

Encourages physical play outdoors

HAS 2022 study of parents of preschoolers indicated that 95% of parents might overestimate their children’s level of physical activity.

The CDC recommend that children ages 3 to 6 be physically active for a minimum of one hour each day. Exercise, along with getting enough sleep, may be associated with better social-emotional development, including emotional regulation and development of empathy. This may be particularly important for boys, according to a 2022 study.

Outdoor play and access to nature can have a positive impact on children’s physical health and sleep habits, according to a 2021 study. So if you are able, try to take your child outdoors to play for at least an hour each day.

Limit screen time

The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that preschoolers have access to screens for an hour or less daily.

HAS 2022 study suggests too much time in front of a screen can impact children:

  • behaviorally
  • emotionally
  • cognitively

Yet another 2022 study indicated that excessive screen time may also impact a child’s sleep.

While you sometimes need to rely on a screen to help you get work done, or to have time to do chores, try to use some of that time to get outside, or to play with your child directly instead.

Preschoolers can be as challenging as they are fun and creative, and it can be easy to make mistakes as a parent.

Letting your child set the rules

When you set rules at home, children may learn that the same rules should be followed in other situations, such as at:

  • school
  • friends or family members’ homes
  • in a house of worship
  • extra-curricular activities

It can be tempting to let your preschooler call the shots when you’re tired, stressed, or overwhelmed. Instead, work with your child to establish and enforce house rules that everyone can follow.

Consider letting your child help with chores. Preschoolers are often eager to be helpers, and you can establish a pattern that may continue through their teenage years.

Reinforcing bad behavior without responding to the good

Children test limits often at this age, and any response you give to particular behaviors — bad or good — can increase the likelihood that they may do it again.

Reinforce the behavior you want to see, and ignore what you do not want to see. The only exception is if the unwanted behavior is harmful or unsafe to your child or another child.

Inconsistency

When your child knows what to expect from you, they tend to feel more secure, and you can establish a reliable routine.

Inconsistency often leads to instability, so try to establish set routines.

Some symptoms in preschoolers may indicate early mental health problems or psychological disorders, especially signs that affect the way children:

  • behave
  • learn
  • regulate their emotions

If your child exhibits a particular behavior that concerns you, consider talk to a pediatrician or a children’s therapist about next steps.

Anxiety and depression

It is possible for preschoolers to develop mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

Some symptoms of anxiety in young children to look out for include:

  • extreme separation anxiety
  • extreme fear of going to school or entering other social situations
  • developing phobias
  • repetitive behaviors

Symptoms of depression in preschoolers can include:

  • changes in eating habits, sleeping patterns, or energy levels
  • frequent irritability or anger
  • lack of interest in doing fun things
  • self-injury

Behavioral or conduct disorders

Preschool-aged kids often test behavioral and social boundaries as a natural part of development. However, when your child’s disruptive behavior seems repetitive or constant, it may be a symptom of a behavioral or conduct disorder.

Some signs and symptoms of conduct disorder may include:

  • a temper that seems disproportionate to a situation
  • refusing to obey rules
  • intentional aggression towards other people or animals

Learning or developmental disorders

Children with mental health disorders or behavioral conditions may also have co-occurring learning disorders or other developmental condition, including:

If you are concerned about your preschooler showing signs or symptoms of any of these conditions, early intervention can make all the difference. Consider reaching out to a pediatrician or child psychologist as a first step toward treatment.

Preschooler behavior can be hilarious, awe-inspiring, frustrating, and downright maddening — sometimes, all at once.

The simple explanation for this behavior? Because children aged 3 to 5 are developmentally wired to seek answers. Parenting a preschooler is often about providing those answers in the form of:

  • structure
  • routines
  • limits
  • rules

Your preschooler thrives on rules. Try to channel this eagerness for rules into establishing household routines and enforcing rules and limits consistently.

Encourage your child to play physically as much as possible, especially outdoors in nature, every day. This can help regulate your child’s emotions, as well as support sleep and physical health.

Remember that your preschool child is learning to be part of a bigger world, and that your job as a parent is to help make that world more manageable for them.

If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior or development, consider speaking to a pediatrician or child psychologist. Check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health care to find support.

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About the author

Publishing Team