Young children aged 2 to 6 are nothing like us, but this doesn’t stop us from expecting them to be behave better. Their unique personality is characteristically brazen, obsessive, impulsive, hysterical, aggressive, resistant, compulsive, and unpredictable.

Fairness for the preschooler means getting what they want, and getting along is overrated. Sharing is not caring according to the preschooler, and consequences fail to alter their performance because they don’t think twice before acting. They would qualify for many personality and behaviour disorders due to their immature behaviour, but they are only being true to their developmental capacity. The problem lies not with the preschooler but with expectations that they should be anything different from this.

The natural shortcomings of preschoolers are due to their immature brains. Under ideal conditions, they will need 5 to 7 years of strong development, or 7 to 9 years for more sensitive kids, to allow their prefrontal cortex to integrate with the emotional centers of the brain. Their brains are only 25% developed at birth and they should go through an unprecedented period of rapid growth in the early years. Until the 5 to 7 year shift occurs, a preschooler can only attend to one emotion, thought, or set of signals at a time.

This is why a preschooler studies the world one object at a time, expresses one emotion at a time, and is only capable of holding onto one thought at a time. For example, they are terrible at keeping secrets because they can’t remember the secret and not to tell it. They believe in magic because they don’t second-guess and can’t consider the context at the same time. Knock-knock jokes baffle them and they will become frustrated if you expect them to multi-task. Their logic is one-sided and they routinely fill in the pieces they don’t know. They can flip from frustration to joy in seconds. Preschooler brains can only do one thing at a time so as to allow one dominant signal to shape the brain.

When a preschooler’s brain has sufficiently integrated, they will be able to mix two thoughts or feelings at the same time. They may start to shake and shudder, but not erupt in attacking energy. They may tell you they ‘half hate you’ as a result of being able to mix together feelings of caring and frustration at the same time. As one kindergartner told her father, “I am sorry I screamed, my neck just couldn’t hold it in any longer.” When a child enters the 5 to 7 shift because development is unfolding well, their brains will resemble an adult one in terms of structure and functioning. This will bring to close the preschooler period, and it will be the dawn of the ‘age of reason’ where they will be ready for schooling, chores, working, and will exhibit more tempered behaviour and emotion.

What To Do With a Preschooler’s Impulsive and Egocentric Ways?

Maturity is not a foregone conclusion, as evident by the number of adults who have not outgrown their preschooler personality. The fault lies not in the preschooler but in a lack of healthy conditions that are available to grow a child up. There is an organic solution to the preschooler personality, and parents have a role in providing a supporting nature helping grow a child up. It starts with providing relational rest by fulfilling their attachment needs, providing freedom to play, and preserving the conditions for growth. Until the 5 to 7 shift occurs, adults will need to compensate for the immature ways of the preschooler and continually point them in a civilized direction.

1. Discipline – The best approach to discipline can be summarized in one word – supervision. Given their impulsive ways and inability to consider the broader context, preschoolers need to be attached to someone who is mature and who can orient and direct them.

2. Build strong relationships – Preschoolers will only follow people they are attached to, so cultivating strong relationships with them is a necessity. This can be achieved by collecting their attention and engaging their attachment instincts. This means we need to get in their face in a friendly way and try to get a smile, their eyes, or a nod in agreement. If an adult is not directly in a preschooler’s field of vision, they will likely have little influence over them.

3. Script interactions – Given preschoolers cannot read context, they need help understanding what is expected of them in social settings. An adult can give a young child a script for their performance in new circumstances or settings, such as the rules for when a guest comes to class, or what to do at their birthday when they receive presents. When an adult can direct and help a young child understand what is expected of them before events occur, it can save frustration and upset feelings for everyone.

4. An adult works to set them up for success and compensates for their immaturity – If an adult accepts their young child is impulsive and egocentric by design, they can work ahead of problems and compensate for this. For example, if they are having a play-date, the parent can work ahead to clear toys or things that would not be easily shared.

5. Structure and routine – Preschoolers will readily attach to structure and routine making it easier to get them to follow along with daily activities. Consistent and predictable routines help ease their angst in having to transition from activity to activity and helps decrease their resistance.

Young children are some of the most misunderstood people around. In Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), the developmental science behind their immaturity is further revealed along with the conditions that will grow them up. The best thing we can we can do for preschoolers is to let them be preschoolers. Their immature ways are not a failing in them but a challenge to the maturity level in those who care for them. Nature has a plan and parents have a role, we need to work at the cultivating the conditions for growth and to have faith that all things grow with patience, time, and good caretaking.

Deborah MacNamara is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute and in private practice working with parent of children and teens. She is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). All work is based on the relational and developmental approach of Gordon Neufeld, PhD, please see for more information or