Menu

Why your preschooler is struggling, according to a family therapist

Potty talk, meltdowns and opposition all mean one thing for your preschooler. Here's how to help.

preschooler meltdown quarantine

"Poopy." "Butt." "I know you are, but what I am!" Preschool lingo is going strong at my house these days. I know it's normal. My son just turned five, and 5-year-olds think anything that has to do with poop is hilarious.

But the silly behaviors—along with some pretty fierce opposition and frustration-based meltdowns—have increased tenfold during the last few months with school closures, self-quarantine and now a slow national reopening that doesn't feel anything like "going back to normal."

As a family therapist who has done play therapy with preschool-age kids for more than 10 years, and with three children of my own, I've heard it all. Preschoolers are adorable little people who are testing their worlds constantly, trying to figure it all out. Wise beyond their years when not talking about bathroom stuff, these kids are working overtime trying to keep up with everyone around them.

But right now, little kids are spinning—learning a new normal, and trying to feel some sense of control in their lives.


In preschool, my son had 10 other kids the same height, who met him at eye level, who talked to him, not down to him. He had a whole group of other people who thought the same way, spoke the same way and played the same games. They communicated through toys, not words. They chased and jumped and smiled and laughed, and fell down and felt in sync with one another. He had his people.

Play is how kids experience, practice and master their world. Play is the tool by which preschoolers develop cognitive, emotional, social and physical skills while building imagination and creativity. Being able to play is the most important thing for young children.

By age 5, kids have developed real friendships and have preferences for how and what they like to play, and with whom. And the truth is, when preschoolers can't play with their classmates and friends, they miss them deeply—even if they don't know how to say that, and can't remember their names.

When my preschooler's "potty talk," meltdowns and outbursts were at a new high, I realized what he was missing.

We set up a Facetime call with his buddy Max, and I held my breath. When Max's little face appeared on the screen, my son grabbed the phone and scurried into the living room by himself. I followed, whisper-shouting, "Don't touch the phone! Just sit still!" Then I watched as he and Max rolled around on the ground together, each at their own homes, making silly faces, giggling, turning the phones in circles.

Then, of course, I heard my son say, "Poop!" but before I could correct him, I saw Max light up like a Christmas tree and say, "Pee pee!"

More laughter erupted. They were in heaven.

Somehow amid quarantine and the school demands of my older kids, I forgot that what my 5-year-old needed was some regular old play to keep learning and keep feeling calm and connected.

Here are a few quick tips for finding your preschooler on their level right now, to help balance out their world and keep calm in your home.

1. Play each day you can.

It doesn't have to be for hours. Thirty minutes is usually enough. Most importantly—play by their rules! Follow their lead.

The funny thing is, after that virtual playdate with Max, my son hasn't asked for another one. It's hard for kids to sit face to face with another kid and just talk. That's not how kids work. They connect by doing something together. For preschoolers, that is tough through a screen.

What is doable, though, is giving them a connection through play on their terms at home. When I started spending time down on the floor with toys and games for at least half an hour every day with my preschooler, I saw his frustrations disappear, his behavior change from negative to positive again.

2. Be silly.

When you hear, "Poopy!" they are saying, "Hey! I need attention!" Resist the urge to dole out a consequence. Get down on your knees, make eye contact, and tickle them as if your life depends on it. (If they don't like to be tickled, give hugs, kisses, scoop them up, fly them like an airplane. Whatever is playful for them, do it.) Then remind them poop goes in the bathroom, and they can ask for tickles if they want your attention.

3. Take their cues.

I know it is hard to stop what you're doing and repeatedly "come see!" all day long, but when a child is positively asking for acknowledgment, meeting that need forges bonds of steel, giving them confidence and the feeling that they are seen and heard. It reduces negative attention-seeking behavior, as well.

So follow their cues and take the opportunity to enter their world. You might even discover it's fun, and stay awhile.

My village lives far away—but my Target baby registry helped them support me from afar

Virtual support was the next best thing to in-person hugs

They say you shouldn't make too many major life transitions at once. But when I was becoming a mama for the first time nearly five years ago, my husband and I also moved to a new town where we didn't know a soul, bought our first house and changed jobs.

To put it mildly, we didn't heed that advice. Luckily, our family and friends still made it feel like such a magical time for us by supporting our every move (literal and otherwise) from afar. They showered us with love through a virtual baby shower (expectant parents nowadays can relate!) featuring the unwrapping of gifts they were able to ship straight to me from my Target registry.

Here's one piece of advice I did take: I registered at Target so I could take advantage of the retailer's benefits for registrants, which include a welcome kit valued over $100, a universal registry function and more. Fast-forward a few years and Target has made the registration perks even better for expectant parents: As of August 2020, they've added a Year of Exclusive Deals, which gives users who also sign up for Target Circle a full year of savings after baby is born on all those new mama essentials, from formula to diapers and beyond.

Honestly, even without the significant perks of a free welcome kit with more than $100 in coupons, additional 15% off coupons to complete the registry and a full year of free returns, registering at Target wasn't a hard sell for me: Even though the experience of shopping for baby items was new, shopping with Target felt like returning home to me… and the comfort of that was such a gift.

And of course, Target's registry plays a vital role right now, as expectant parents everywhere are being forced to cancel in-person baby showers and navigate early parenthood without the help of a hands-on village. A registry like this represents a safe way for communities to come through for new parents. If you're anything like me (or any of the other mamas here at Motherly), you certainly have emotional ties and fond memories associated with Target.

What to register for at Target was also an easy talking point as I began to connect with moms in my new community. I will always remember going on a registry-building spree with my next door neighbor, who had young children of her own. As we walked the aisles of Target back in 2015, she suggested items to add… and we laid the foundation for what has since become one of my most cherished friendships.

Even as I made connections in my new hometown, I was nervous that expecting my first baby wouldn't feel as special as if I were near family and friends. But my loved ones exceeded all expectations by adding the most thoughtful notes to gifts. They hosted a beautiful virtual baby shower and even encouraged me to keep the registry going after my baby made his debut and new needs arose.

In the years since, "community" has taken on a wonderfully complex new meaning for me… and, in these times of social distancing, for the rest of the world. I've come to cherish my newfound friends in our local community alongside those long-time friends who are scattered around the county and my virtual mama friends.

Now, as my friends' families grow, I'm so grateful that I can show them the same love and support I felt during my first pregnancy. I sing the praises of Target's baby registry—especially in light of the pandemic, since I know mamas can do everything from a distance thanks to Target's website and the added benefit of getting trusted reviews and helpful registry checklists.

And now that I'm on the gift-buying side of the equation, I've found new joy in picking thoughtful gifts for my friends. (Because goodness knows Target has something for everyone!)

For my friend who is a fellow runner, I teamed up with a few others to give the jogging stroller she had on her registry.

For my friend who is a bookworm, I helped her start her baby's library with a few books that are also well-loved in our home.

For other friends, I've bundled together complete "sets" with everything they need for bathing or feeding their children.

I know from my own experience that, yes, the registry purchases are so appreciated, but the thoughtfulness and the support they represent means even more. Because although my village may have been distant, the support they showed me was the next best thing to in-person hugs.

Start your own Target Baby Registry here to experience a Year of Benefits including a Year of Exclusive Deals through Target Circle to enjoy for a full year following your baby's arrival, a year of free returns, two 15% off completion coupons and a free welcome kit ($100 value).

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

Motherly editors’ 7 favorite hacks for organizing their diaper bags

Make frantically fishing around for a diaper a thing of the past!

As any parent knows, the term "diaper bag" only scratches the surface. In reality, this catchall holds so much more: a change of clothes, bottles, snacks, wipes and probably about a dozen more essential items.

Which makes finding the exact item you need, when you need it (read: A diaper when you're in public with a blowout on your hands) kind of tricky.

That's why organization is the name of the game when it comes to outings with your littles. We pooled the Motherly team of editors to learn some favorite hacks for organizing diaper bags. Here are our top tips.

1. Divide and conquer with small bags

Here's a tip we heard more than a few times: Use smaller storage bags to organize your stuff. Not only is this helpful for keeping related items together, but it can also help keep things from floating around in the expanse of the larger diaper bag. These bags don't have to be anything particularly fancy: an unused toiletry bag, pencil case or even plastic baggies will work.

2. Have an emergency changing kit

When you're dealing with a diaper blowout situation, it's not the time to go searching for a pack of wipes. Instead, assemble an emergency changing kit ahead of time by bundling a change of baby clothes, a fresh diaper, plenty of wipes and hand sanitizer in a bag you can quickly grab. We're partial to pop-top wipes that don't dry out or get dirty inside the diaper bag.

3. Simplify bottle prep

Organization isn't just being able to find what you need, but also having what you need. For formula-feeding on the go, keep an extra bottle with the formula you need measured out along with water to mix it up. You never know when your outing will take longer than expected—especially with a baby in the mix!

4. Get resealable snacks

When getting out with toddlers and older kids, snacks are the key to success. Still, it isn't fun to constantly dig crumbs out of the bottom of your diaper bag. Our editors love pouches with resealable caps and snacks that come in their own sealable containers. Travel-sized snacks like freeze-dried fruit crisps or meal-ready pouches can get an unfair reputation for being more expensive, but that isn't the case with the budget-friendly Comforts line.

5. Keep a carabiner on your keychain

You'll think a lot about what your child needs for an outing, but you can't forget this must-have: your keys. Add a carabiner to your keychain so you can hook them onto a loop inside your diaper bag. Trust us when we say it's a much better option than dumping out the bag's contents on your front step to find your house key!

6. Bundle your essentials

If your diaper bag doubles as your purse (and we bet it does) you're going to want easy access to your essentials, too. Dedicate a smaller storage bag of your diaper bag to items like your phone, wallet and lip balm. Then, when you're ready to transfer your items to a real purse, you don't have to look for them individually.

7. Keep wipes in an outer compartment

Baby wipes aren't just for diaper changes: They're also great for cleaning up messy faces, wiping off smudges, touching up your makeup and more. Since you'll be reaching for them time and time again, keep a container of sensitive baby wipes in an easily accessible outer compartment of your bag.

Another great tip? Shop the Comforts line on www.comfortsforbaby.com to find premium baby products for a fraction of competitors' prices. Or, follow @comfortsforbaby for more information!

This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that supporting Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

The 6 biggest lies I believed before having kids

Just about all of us had set assumptions about raising kids before we became parents ourselves.

Just about all of us had set assumptions about raising kids before we became parents ourselves. Some of these ideas might have been based on our own ideas of how we would absolutely do things differently than everyone else. Others, we believed what everyone else told us would happen would apply to our littles, too. But, that's not always the case, mama.

Below are six of the biggest lies I believed before having kids—and the reality of what actually happened for me.

1. Put your baby down drowsy, but awake

Keep reading Show less
Life