Just when the day is going well—he ate his lunch, took a nap (yay!), and now he's playing quietly nearby—you're suddenly faced with an emotional meltdown. “Kids this age struggle with self-control and are still learning how to communicate, so it's common for them to quickly shift from happy and content to upset and crying,” says John Duby, M.D., developmental pediatrician and chair of the AAP's Mental Health Leadership Work Group. But if you can teach your tot to identify his emotions, the mood swings may become less frequent and his self-control should improve. Use short, simple phrases and, above all, remain calm, notes Dr. Duby. For more help with tough moods, check out the AAP's audio and video “Sound Advice” clips at healthychildren.org. How to proceed:
The MOOD: Anger
The TRIGGER: Merely mentioning a switch in activities (“It's time to go home”) can cause this red-hot response. Fatigue and hunger may also be factors.
The FIX: Get down to his level, look him in the eye, gently touch his arm, and say “You're mad. You're upset. But it's time to go home.” Repeat as needed.
The MOOD: Frustration
He just can't do it!
The TRIGGER: His fine motor skills are still developing, making simple tasks a challenge. And he has no real sense of time—five minutes can seem like five hours.
The FIX: When he's struggling, validate his feelings by telling him “This is tough! You're working hard!” Then give lots of praise when he accomplishes his task.
The MOOD: Sadness
Tears, wailing, the works
The TRIGGER: The world can be a disappointing place for a preschooler, so even the littlest things—popped balloons, toppled ice cream cones—can set him off.
The FIX: Give him hugs and words to help: “I know you're sad that we can't go to the park.” Add something positive—“Tomorrow will be sunny!”—to get him excited.