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Preschooler Psychosocial and Behavioral Development

Controlling emotional states, including delaying gratification and tolerating frustration, separations, and fears without breaking down emotionally, should be mastered during the preschool period. Displays of uninhibited anger and frustration increase during the second year and then decrease in the preschooler psychosocial development.


Tolerating separation from the parents is necessary to the growing autonomy of the child that is characteristic of this period. After the initial developmental task of forming attachments to their primary caregivers over the first 2 years, children now must hold the security of those relationships in their minds to function when separated to go or stay with other adults. The average 3-year-old child can separate easily from parents and go to known adults. However, there is great variability.


Beyond the most common factor of temperament, children develop their emotional tone in several ways. The pattern of secure attachment to primary caregivers in infancy has some predictive power for "joy in mastery," "sociability," and IQ in the preschooler.


Fantasy life becomes very rich during the preschool years. At first, it is indistinguishable from reality, resulting in a tendency for fears. By the age of 4, children frequently have frightening dreams that they can state are "not real," although this does not necessarily reassure them. Excessive fears or nightmares can be related to excessive life stresses on any developmental process; real dangers such as from abuse, dangerous surroundings, or sibling or peer bullies; or from the media. Temperamentally timid children may blame fears for their behavior.


Almost all preschool children are noncompliant, at least some of the time--on average, they comply with adult requests about 50% of the time. This struggle for autonomy can be viewed as a positive milestone of development, with passivity representing a potential symptom of depression or intimidation. It is the parents' job to provide the structure that will influence the child to comply with our culture's standards for behavior. Research indicates that parents who are authoritative and firm but also warm, encouraging, and rational are more likely to have children who are self-reliant.


Problems with siblings are a common concern of both children and their parents. Sixty-five percent of children report fights with their siblings that only decrease "some" after third grade and reduce "more significantly" after one of the children passes 15 years of age. Many factors are associated with greater sibling rivalry, including opposite gender, difficult temperament, insecure pattern of attachment, family discord, corporal punishment, and, most importantly, perception of differential treatment. The entrance of a new baby into the family is likely during the preschool years. How a child interacts with the new arrival in the first 3 weeks predicts interactions into the second year. More than 90%.

Peer Relationships


One of the most obvious tasks of developmental progress for the preschool child is learning to interact happily with peers. At the age of 2 years, most play still is parallel, although children frequently look at peers and copy some of their actions. By the age of 3, children should have mastered aggression and should be able to initiate associative play with a peer, have joint goals in their play together, and take turns, although children generally can play effectively only with groups of children.


Social development during the preschool years should include acquisition of the human characteristics of shame, guilt, empathy, self-awareness, and classification of events and preferences among peers. Although prosocial behaviors such as concern over the distress of others is present during infancy.


Sexual feelings are clearly present before the preschool years, but become more obvious now. Handling the genitals for pleasure (masturbation) peaks at 2 1/2 years of age before becoming more private, and exploring the genitals of others also is common. Compulsive masturbation or that which interferes with daily activities is abnormal.


Throughout the preschool period, any child from age 2 to 5 years could regress momentarily to total infantile dependence, such as going limp and saying "I'm a baby," then quickly show.


Appropriate eating behaviors for a 2-year-old child include being able to use utensils well but with continued messiness and insistence on rituals. Attempts by a parent to intervene in preventing the mess should be avoided, and their reasons for such interventions should be elicited. Such reasons may include impatience with "babyishness" that the mess represents or a need to continue spoon-feeding their "baby" instead of allowing the autonomy that self-feeding represents. By age 3, children can be expected to feed themselves without spilling much and, if given the opportunity to pour.


Parental report of independence in dressing should reveal the 2-year-old's ability to and penchant for taking off clothing, including shoes, socks, and pants, but a lack of success in dressing beyond cooperation by thrusting arms through sleeves. Although the 2 1/2-year-old can undress completely.


To be independent in toileting, children must be able to signal the need before voiding, walk, climb, pull their clothes up and down, be dry for several hours during the day, understand what the toilet is for, and be motivated to model after adults and please them.

Motor and Cognitive Aspects of Play

The type of play a child prefers reflects cognitive, fine and gross motor, and visual perceptual motor skills. Children will not play for long at activities that frustrate them because of a lack of ability. Fine motor and visual perceptual motor skills are being refined during these years, but there is a broad range of time for normal acquisition (DSM-PC Developmental Coordination Variation V65.49). Observing the child copy shapes can reveal much about attention, temperament.