Wendy C. Fries
Laura J. Martin, MD
You probably noticed your preschooler's unique personality peeking out those first few months of life, when your little one reached eagerly for a rattle or pushed away a teddy bear. Between the ages of 3-5, your child's personality is still growing and changing.
What sorts of changes can you expect in during the preschool years? How can you help your preschooler's personality blossom? Here's expert advice.
From age 3-5, kids' personalities develop all kinds of new features. For example, they're becoming more comfortable with expressing themselves with words, says Kirby Deater-Deckard, PhD, psychology professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and author of Parenting Stress.
During those years, preschoolers gain more self-control, too. They will rely less on you and others, and more on themselves. They're learning how to calm themselves when they get excited, frightened, or upset, and they're becoming more attentive and less emotionally reactive.
Preschoolers are also building their self-confidence. And they're "gaining lots of experience in learning how to treat others," Deater-Deckard says.
By age 5, kids typically start showing more concern for mom and dad, at last starting to understand that you have your own needs and feelings, too. They'll also begin to show affection more easily, develop a fantasy life, and may see-saw between being demanding and cooperative.
While your child's personality will blossom naturally on its own, there's a lot you can do to help it fully and freely develop -- and a few things you should avoid.
1. Remember that your child is unique. "Children differ in remarkable ways from each other in their budding personalities," Deater-Deckard tells WebMD. That includes siblings. Ultimately, "healthy personality development is fostered by parenting that is sensitive and responsive to the individual strengths and needs of the child."
2. Encourage play. It's a huge influence on a child's development. Giving kids time to play is key to helping your child's personality blossom, says pediatrician Tanya R. Altmann, MD, author of Mommy Calls: Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions About Babies and Toddlers.
Play helps kids develop physically, mentally, and emotionally. It teaches them to work in groups, settle conflicts, develop their imagination, and try on different roles. When kids play, they practice decision-making, learn to stand up for themselves, create, explore, and lead.
3. Avoid labels. You want your child's personality to develop on its own, without being shaped by yours (or anyone else's) views. So avoid labeling your preschooler with words like shy, bossy, emotional, or tough.
4. Set an example. You're probably the person your preschooler sees and imitates the most. So it's up to you to model politeness, sharing, and patience.
5. Realize it's nature and nurture. Don't chalk up your child's personality to just their nature or how you nurture them: Both matter, says Deater-Deckard, and work "together to create the diversity of children’s (and adults!) personalities."
6. Let your child be himself or herself, not an image of you. Maybe you're very outgoing, focused, quiet, or shy. You may want your child to be like that, too. But it's much more important that they be themselves, and make friends and meet the world in their own way.
There are many more ways to help your child's personality grow.
Reading to your preschooler can be an important key, Altmann tells WebMD. She also favors limiting television time.
Other experts recommend supporting your preschooler's interests and broadening their experiences. How you help your child's personality develop just may turn out to be as unique as your child.
You can let preschooler be themselves and still encourage them to try things that don't exactly fit their emerging personalities.
"People change," says Deater-Deckard, and the parts of us that make up our personality do "have some flexibility."
Deater-Deckard suggests that instead of trying to change your child's personality, focus on giving the child experiences "that may support growth in new directions."
Those experiences could include the way you parent, your home, and your preschooler’s social experiences with other kids and adults.
"I encourage parents to enjoy and even relish each child’s individual qualities and strengths," Deater-Deckard says, "while trying to figure out how to respond to that same child’s more challenging or difficult behaviors."
By the preschool years, the major parts of personality are already pretty stable. But they're not rigid. People can change at any age, Deater-Deckard notes.
Focus on the aspects of your preschooler's life that you influence and, as Deater-Deckard says, "strive to create a loving and supportive environment, rather than striving to make the child become like a particular kind of person."
SOURCES:Kirby Deater-Deckard, PhD, professor of psychology, director of graduate programs, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; author, Parenting Stress.Tanya R. Altmann, MD, FAAP, pediatrician; spokeswoman, American Academy of Pediatrics; author, Mommy Calls: Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions About Babies and Toddlers.Spock, B. Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, 6th edition. Pocket Books, 1992.Altmann, T. The Wonder Years, Bantam Books, 2007.CDC: "Important Milestones: By the End of Three Years (36 Months)," "Important Milestones: By the End of Four Years (48 Months)," "Important Milestones: By the End of Five Years (60 Months)."American Academy of Pediatrics: "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bond."
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