The preschool years bring an explosion of growth in both language and social development. Between the ages of two and six, children will acquire an average of eight new words a day, and waste no time in putting them to use. (Gormly & Brodzinsky, 1993) By the age of 3, children will have formed a view of themselves based on their interactions with others. (Stipeck, 1983) A child’s social identity starts to become established, which opens the door for pride, shame, and guilt to develop as a byproduct.

A child’s concept of internal versus external frames of mind grows by leaps and bounds during these years. For example, hide a treat somewhere in a room with two children watching. Then have one child leave the room. While the other child is out, move the treat to a new hiding place with the remaining child watching. Then ask him or her where the other child will look for the treat when they come back into the room. Three-year-olds, depending on their maturity in this area, will tend to think that the other child will look for the treat in the new hiding place. They still have difficulty separating their own frame of mind (I know where the treat is) from what another is thinking. By age four, most children will tell you the other child will look in the old hiding place. They’ve clearly grasped the concept that their own knowledge and understanding of things differ from that of others.

Another similar measure of this development can be found in a game called “mean monkey.” Get a stuffed animal (any kind will do) and then gather different stickers or treats. Set two different choices out at a time, and have “mean monkey” ask which one the child wants. On every round, mean monkey asks the child which sticker they prefer, and then takes the child’s choice for himself while giving the child the opposite one, hence the name, mean monkey. By the time children are 4-years-old, most will pick up on mean monkey’s trick and cleverly learn to tell him the opposite of what they really want. Younger children tend to naively continue telling the truth, so that they never get the sticker/treat they really want. This ability to see through another’s action to their underlying intent has many implications for how children perceive adversity and view the world in general.

As they grow, this social way of thinking really starts to establish itself. When kindergartners are asked how they and others would feel in a variety of situations, they expect to experience unique emotions (“Jonny would be sad but I wouldn’t”) and they also provide unique explanations for what they would experience (“I’d tell myself that the bunny was in heaven, but Billy would just cry.”; (Karnoil & Koren, 1987)

A child’s developing empathy skills also blossom during this age. By about the fourth year, their ability to emphasize is about on par with that of an adult. This gives them the full repertoire of adult emotions, with the ability to feel what others feel, sympathize with their pain, and respond in a caring way.

How Preschoolers & Kindergartners Deal With Adversity

  • Young children around this age (and occasionally older) sometimes believe that their thoughts govern the world. As such, they can sometimes think that they’ve brought about an aversive event by thinking or wishing for something bad.
  • Social growth and significance is exploding, but experience is still lacking, which leaves preschoolers especially vulnerable to any type of perceived ridicule, particularly that coming from their caretakers. They are deeply troubled by any type of rejection or social disapproval.
  • It may not seem like it at times, but children this age live to please. Almost everything they do is built around obtaining the favor and approval of their caregivers. This makes a child extremely vulnerable to hostility or aggression from adults. Keep in mind this strive to please also makes them highly suggestible, so be careful what you say and do, since for better or worse, preschoolers will try to emulate this behavior.
  • Preschoolers have several things going for them. Language takes hold, and so they are more capable of expressing their pain, fear or concerns, as well as seeking comforting from adults. Yet while they’re much more capable, they’re still at that age where they are relatively insulated from the irrational thinking and web of abstract beliefs that plague older people. They don’t add a whole lot of extra meaning to everything, but roll with the punches. They are also extremely loving and affectionate, which makes them quick to forgive.