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Young children

The preschool and early elementary years are full of exciting changes and new developments. Children are learning about the world, talking, interacting with other children and acquiring new skills at a breathtaking pace! They are inquisitive and want to know about all sorts of things.

At times, the ways that young children understand the world may seem surprising to adults. For example, it is not uncommon for children in this age range to believe that they have caused things to happen that are outside of their control, or to think that everyone else will know automatically what they are thinking and feeling. Learning to “think like a preschooler” can help parents understand their children’s behavior and help them make sense of their feelings and experiences.

Typical development


  • Children at this stage can play or explore for longer periods of time or at a greater distance than in infancy or toddlerhood, but parents are still extremely important. Young children consider their primary caregivers their “secure base” from which to
    explore the world.
  • When young children are afraid, distressed, or in need of emotional or physical help, they count on their primary caregivers to welcome them and offer them comfort, reassurance and assistance to feel secure and ready to continue learning and exploring.
  • Play is the work of childhood. Children learn about social norms, develop feelings of competence and gain an important understanding of the world around them through their play.
  • Preschool-aged children are beginning to show more interest in their peers. They may enjoy playgroups, pre-school or other peer-group settings. This is still a time of learning how to interact with peers, so often the play is more “parallel” than “collaborative,” as children are still learning to share or interact cooperatively.
  • As children move towards kindergarten and grade school, their peer relationships grow more complex and they begin to develop more special sustained friendships.


  • Preschoolers are learning, but are not yet fully able, to self-regulate their behavior. This means that they are learning how to control aggression and cope with disappointments and frustration.
  • Because young children are still mastering these self-regulation skills, they will often rely on others (like teachers or parents) to help them manage behaviors or feelings. They may need adults to help them learn to calm down, or to use words instead of behaviors to express feelings, for example, saying “I’m mad!” instead of hitting.
  • Children are also learning how to label their emotions, which is an important step towards learning to use words, rather than actions or behaviors, to express their feelings. Conversations with adults help them build that “emotion vocabulary”. Talking with kids about their feelings helps them learn to manage them more effectively.


  • Preschoolers tend to engage in “egocentric” thought. In other words, they think that others know their thoughts and feelings, or that they are responsible for things that happen. For example, children in this age range may simply assume that other people know their Aunt Judy, or they may believe that the moon is following them.
  • Preschoolers tend to think very concretely. It is hard for them to understand abstract concepts, so explanations should be kept short, specific, and simple.
  • They may take expressions very literally. For instance, a proudly toilet-trained young child may be very concerned (and somewhat shocked) when a tired parent says, “I’m pooped.”


  • Children in this age range grow rapidly.
  • Brain development also progresses rapidly – neurons continue to form new connections based on everyday experiences.
  • At this stage, children love physical activity such as climbing, crawling and running. This is a great time for playgrounds and outdoor exploration.

Common post-deployment reactions

  • The heightened emotion surrounding the reunion may be both exciting and confusing for a young child. He/she may show confusion or feelings of uncertainty by temporarily regressing in areas such as sleeping or eating routines.
  • Young children may show temporary increases in shy or withdrawn behavior, and be less tolerant of frustration. The family may endure more tantrums and temporary increases in aggressive behavior such as hitting or yelling.
  • Children of this age typically have an egocentric view of the world, and may believe that they caused the military parent to go away, or that the parent left because he/she did not care about the child.
  • Children may use their play with stuffed animals or dolls to act out stories about separations and reunions. This can be helpful in processing experiences and feeling more in control of situations.
  • A child may be angry at a returning parent for having been gone, and may “act out” more frequently.
  • Because children in this age range are still learning an “emotion vocabulary,” they may show their feelings more, and have a harder time expressing feelings verbally.
  • Following the military parent’s return, the young child may keep that parent “at a distance” in order to prevent him/herself from feeling further loss or abandonment. He/she may take a while to develop a sense of trust and to believe that it is okay to feel close again.

Strategies for parents

  • Maintain established routines, especially around bedtime and meals, to help reduce children’s confusion and help them feel more comfortable as they begin to reestablish this important relationship.
  • Offer reassurance that the deployed parent did not want to leave child, that child was not responsible for the departure, and that the parent is glad to return.
  • Accept that the child will have a range of feelings about the separation from and the reunion with the military parent.
  • Notice, acknowledge, and reward positive behaviors.
  • Read books or watch videos that illustrate other children experiencing deployment and reunification. This can help reassure children and offer parents opportunities to more easily engage their children in conversation.
  • The returning military parent should not rush into setting limits or being the rule enforcer—allow the non-military parent to keep that role as much as possible to maintain stability and predictability in family routines.
  • The returning military parent should nonetheless reinforce the other parent’s rules and set appropriate limits on child behavior to help children feel confident that both parents are still “in charge” and that they cannot “push” their parents away.

Red flags

  • Increased and ongoing clinginess, crying and whining, including refusal to attend school or intense separation anxiety
  • Increased and ongoing aggressive behavior
  • Intense feelings of anger or sadness that persist over time
  • Increased or ongoing difficulty interacting with peers
  • Sustained or notable withdrawal from other people
  • Showing less interest in fun activities
  • Displaying more frustration or showing more difficulty when being comforted
  • A regression or return to earlier stages of toileting (e.g., frequent “accidents”), feeding, or sleep difficulties

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