Preschooler Development

“I’m a big kid now!”

This site we link out to focuses on how to support the growing independence of preschoolers. It focuses on some strategies and ideas for setting limits, creating and keeping routines, taking time to talk and listen, assigning responsibility, encouraging independence in bathing and dressing, teaching simple rules about safety with adults, and helping children become good friends. 

Topics Covered:

Children love to learn!

Children from 4 to 6 years old are:

  • Beginning to develop their independence and form real friendships
  • Learning rules to more difficult games
  • Developing important life skills
preschooler resources parents sitting on floor with kids playing in a circle

Setting Limits

Creating and keep routines

  • Morning
  • Bedtime

Take time to talk and listen
Ask your child:

  • What was the best part of today?
  • What was the hardest part of today?

Assigning responsibility

Encourage independence in bathing and dressing

Teaching simple rules about safety with adults

Help your child become a good friend

  • Help your child understand the other child’s point of view.
  • Teach your child to stay calm and do not hit, grab, or shove
  • Use words
  • “Stand close by and watch as the children solve their problem. Being close by puts the children on their best behavior. This is how they begin to develop the confidence and skills to communicate honestly, calmly, and politely with others.”

Nightmares, Night Terrors and Sleepwalking

toddler nightmare and night terrors girl in bed crying with nightlight

Sleepwalking and sleep talking: What you can do

  • Make sure children don’t hurt themselves while sleepwalking. Clear the bedroom of things children could trip or fall on
  • Lock outside doors so children cannot leave the house
  • Block stairways so children cannot go up or down
  • Do not try to wake children when they are sleepwalking or sleep talking. Gently lead them back to bed, and they will probably settle down on their own

This resource breaks down the difference between nightmares, night terrors, and sleep walking/talking. It explains what to look for and provides suggestions for what to do in response. Remember, you can always talk to a doctor!

Nightmares: What you can do

  • Go to your child as quickly as possible
  • Assure them that you are there and will not let anything harm them
  • Encourage them to tell you what happened in the dream. Remind them that dreams are not real.
  • Allow them to keep a light on if it makes them feel better
  • Once child is ready, encourage to go back to sleep
  • See if there is something that is scaring your child, like shadows. If so, make sure they are gone.

Night Terror Examples:

  • Cry uncontrollable
  • Sweat, shake, or breathe fast
  • Have a terrified, confused, or glassy-eyed look
  • Thrash around, scream, kick, or stare
  • Not recognize you or realize you are there
  • Try to push you away, especially if you try to hold them

Night Terrors: What you can do

  • Stay calm. Children are unaware of ever having a night terror because they are asleep, so there is no effect on children, only parents.
  • Make sure your child cannot hurt themself. If they try to get out of bed, gently restrain them. 
  • Remember, after a short time your child will probably relax and sleep quietly again. If your child has night terrors, be sure to tell the babysitters what they are and what to do. If keep happening, talk to doctor 

Sexual Behavior and Body Safety in 2-6 year olds

Normal behavior include:

  • Touching/masturbating genitals in public or private 
  • Looking at or touching a peer’s or new sibling’s genitals
  • Showing genitals to peers
  • Standing or sitting too close to someone 
  • Trying to see peers or adults naked

Red flag behaviors:

  • Occurs frequently and cannot be redirected
  • Causes emotional or physical pain or injury to themselves or others
  • Is associated with physical aggression
  • Involves coercion or force
  • Simulates adult sexual acts
happy preschoolers laying in the grass laughing

Body safety teaching tips for parents:

  • Use appropriate language
  • Evaluate your family’s respect for modesty
  • Don’t force affection
  • Explain what good vs. bad touches are
  • Give your children a solid rule
  • Control media exposure 
  • Review this info regularly with your children
  • Expect questions
  • Talk with your child’s pediatrician 

At what age should I start talking to my child about sex?

Sexuality plays a role in every individual’s life, regardless of age. As your child matures, they may talk and laugh with peers about “private parts,” exchange “dirty” jokes, and look up the meaning of prohibited words.

Their inquisitiveness is inherent, and children at various stages will have questions. When they feel prepared to pose questions, it’s important for you as a parent to be prepared to respond.

Answering your child’s questions

The first step is to figure out what kinds of related information your child already knows. You can do so by letting your child guide the conversation with questions. Certain children might refrain from seeking information if they sense that you could be uncomfortable with it. Others may test you by asking embarrassing questions. Encourage open communication and assure your child that they can speak openly and ask you about anything.

Tips to help make it easier for both of you:

  • Refrain from laughing, even if the question seems cute. It’s crucial not to make your child feel ashamed of their curiosity.
  • Maintain composure; try not to convey excessive embarrassment or seriousness about the subject.
  • Be brief; there’s no need for lengthy explanations. Provide simple answers, as intricate details may not be necessary for a 4-year-old.
  • Be truthful; offer accurate information and use appropriate names for all body parts.
  • Check if your child wants or needs more information, concluding your answers with, “Does that answer your question?”
  • Pay attention to your child’s responses and reactions.
  • Be patient and ready to repeat information if necessary.

Remember that if discussing sex or responding to specific questions makes you uncomfortable, it’s okay to be honest about it. You might want to consider enlisting the help of a relative, a close family friend, or your pediatrician to engage in a conversation with your child.

Questions to Expect at Each Age

Preschool Children

What they might ask:

  • How did I get in your tummy?
  • Where was I before I got in your tummy?
  • How did I get out?
  • Where do babies come from?
  • How come girls don’t have a penis?

What they should know:

18 months – 3 years of age

At this stage, children are beginning to discover more about their bodies and how they function. Educate your child on the proper names for body parts, as inventing names may imply secrecy or negativity about these parts.

Additionally, guide your child in understanding which body parts are private and should not be observed or touched without their consent, including areas covered by their swimwear and their mouth. Similarly, emphasize the importance of ask and receive verbal consent (“yes”) before touching others.

Introduce the concept of body autonomy, explaining that they should never be forced into physical contact with anyone, regardless of their relationship. Acknowledge and support your child in situations where they might feel uncomfortable with hugs and kisses, offering alternatives like waves or high-fives.

4 – 5 years of age

Your child might start displaying curiosity about basic aspects of sexuality, including their own and that of the another sex. They may inquire about the origin of babies or the differences between male and female bodies. Exploring their own genitals and showing interest in the genitals of other children are natural expressions of curiosity.

It’s crucial to understand that these behaviors are not adult sexual activities but rather indicators of normal curiosity. However, it’s important for your child to grasp what is acceptable and what is not. Establishing boundaries for exploration is essential in teaching social boundaries and norms.

Demonstrate the concept of body autonomy by seeking your child’s consent before giving hugs or kisses. Respect their responses without inducing shame or guilt.

School-age Children

What they might ask:

  • How old do girls have to be before they can have a baby?
  • Why do boys get erections?
  • What is a period?
  • How do people have sexual intercourse?
  • Why do some men like other men?

What they should know:

5 to 7 years of age

At this age, children begin learning how people interact and how they get along with each other. They may begin to wonder what takes place sexually between adults. 

Their inquiries will likely grow more complex as they attempt to comprehend the link between sexuality and the creation of babies. They might formulate their own interpretations of bodily functions or the origins of babies, seeking answers from friends or the internet.

Guiding your child to grasp sexuality in a positive light is crucial during this stage. The lessons and values they acquire at this age will shape their perspectives as adults, fostering the development of meaningful relationships later on.

8 to 9 years of age

By this stage, your child likely has developed a sense of right and wrong, and understand that sex happens between consenting individuals. They may also start to become curious about how caregivers met and fell in love.

Questions about romance, love, and marriage may emerge. Utilize this opportunity to discuss your family’s perspectives on LGBTQ or other non-traditional relationships. Emphasize that affection or love is not contingent on gender and is distinct from sexual attraction.

During this phase, your child will undergo various changes in preparation for puberty. It’s crucial to engage in conversations about delaying sexual intercourse until they are older and to address the concept of consent in sexual activities.

This age also marks a suitable time to initiate discussions about contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Ensure they understand how these diseases spread and how to protect themselves from STIs and pregnancy. Teaching your child about sexual responsibility is among the paramount lessons in their life.

Teachable Moments

Daily occurrences and events provide numerous opportunities to educate your child on topics related to sex. Use these as teachable moments. For instance, discussing body parts during bath time is more effective than addressing the subject during dinner. The arrival of a new pregnancy or birth in the family presents a good time to talk about the conception and birth of babies. Watching television together with your child can also serve as a suitable moment to discuss matters related to sexuality.

Teachable moments can unfold in various settings, whether you’re shopping, at the movies, or even at the park. Seize these opportunities as they arise; there’s no need for a formal presentation.

Engaging in conversations about sex and sexuality provides an opportunity for you to impart your knowledge, values, and beliefs to your child. Although the subject or questions may occasionally be awkward, it’s crucial for your child to understand that you are a trustworthy and honest source they can always rely on for answers.

This resource will help you to learn what we kinds of sexual behavior we can expect from children of different ages and gives suggestions for how to have healthy conversations around sex. It also provides information about the questions to expect in children that are 18 months – 3 years, preschoolers, 4-5 years, and school-age. 

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