Emotionally healthy children start school with:

  • reasonable levels of impulse control – the ability to take turns, control aggressive behaviour, understand and follow a routine

  • the ability to cope comfortably with normal stress and anxiety

  • confidence in their ability to deal with new situations and to try new tasks.

As preschool children mature, they develop a more complex understanding of feelings such as happiness, sadness, anger, jealousy, rejection, and guilt. (126) These feelings are reflected in their constantly changing repertoire of behaviours.

Engagement in conversations about feelings and causal talk was linked to later success on emotion and understanding tasks. (55)

Children’s experiences with their parents during the first years of life provide the foundation for their healthy emotional development during the preschool years. Early experiences of affectionate, consistent responsive parenting helps children develop a sense of trust in the caregiver and this provides a sense of security. This sense of secure attachment to parents provides a base from which children, as they get older, feel confident about exploring their environment, establishing new relationships and trying new activities. (53)

Consistent, affectionate response from parents in the first years of life is also thought to set the stage for children’s ability to regulate their emotions as they get older. When their needs are met promptly and affectionately, children develop a sense of predictability and control over their environment. This helps keep them calm, and eventually they learn to calm themselves when they experience minor distress. Researchers believe that if children are calmed gently and consistently when they are upset, this has a significant physiological effect by strengthening neural pathways. These neural connections ultimately form a "calm down" switch that helps them further develop of self-control. (53)

Children’s experiences with parents during the preschool years builds on these positive early experiences. Children develop greater confidence as parents support their efforts to explore the world around them, and they develop greater self-control as they are gently guided by parents to deal with frustration and anger in socially acceptable ways.

Influences on the positive outcome: Age-appropriate social skills

Secure attachment

Developing sense of competence


Supportive communities

  Protection from abuse

Note: These influences are also listed in the drop-down list above. Please use this menu to navigate within this page.

Secure attachment

It is in daily contact and interaction with parents that children build their self-confidence, learn to control impulsive behaviours and learn to cope with stressful situations. Parents are both their children's teachers and their primary role models.

The soothing experiences of infancy form the basis of a healthy stress response system. Scientists believe that when parents are sensitively attuned to their infants and meet their needs for soothing, this experience strengthens important neural connections. The brain patterns that are established in these early experiences form the basis of children’s ability to calm themselves.

These positive early experiences begin to establish children’s expectations of the world, and influence their habitual response to new experiences. Repeated positive experiences reinforce their expectation that other experiences will have a positive outcome. This positive expectation reduces their anxiety level in new situations and helps them to adapt with less stress.

Care providers who look after children while their parents work or study, will have a significant influence on the lives of these children. Research related to experiences of child care focuses on cognitive and behavioural outcomes. In general, the research concludes that quality child care experiences are beneficial in both areas. Specific outcomes vary with the program and with the background of the children participating. There have been fewer studies that examine the impact of poor quality care on middle class children, but there is emerging evidence that it has a negative impact and that the home environment cannot fully compensate for this. (53)

Quality child care settings employ knowledgeable care providers who have the time to provide warm, attentive and sensitive care.


  • Encourage fathers, as well as mothers, to be involved in day-to-day child care.

  • Seek help if you or your partner is unable to be involved with your child on an ongoing basis due to depression or other family problems.

  • Educate young people about child development and secure attachment and cooperate with local childcare centres and preschools to provide hands-on child care experiences for senior students.


  • Help young parents learn to parent. Provide information and parenting support through mentoring and informal support networks, family resource centres, family service centres, parent groups, libraries, recreation centres, telephone information lines, drop-in centres, community organizations and homevisiting programs.

  • Support parenting groups that help parents develop effective parenting skills and enhance their ability to form a secure attachment with their children. Parenting groups address issues identified by parents as areas of concern and provide parents with the opportunity to share and learn from other parents. Take into consideration things that may make it difficult for parents to attend, such as location, time, cost and childcare. (165, 278)

  • A parenting program in Ontario reported greater improvements in behaviour problems at home among participants of a large, community-based parenting program, than among parents who received individual, clinic-based parent training. (278)

  • Reduce parental pressures felt by low-income families by increasing access to affordable housing and nutritious foods, through initiatives such as food buying clubs, community gardens and collective kitchens.


  • Help parents balance work and family life by adopting flexible working hours that make it easier to accommodate child care arrangements and providing parental leave to deal with childcare emergencies, sickness or time to visit child care facilities.

  • Reduce pressure for overtime work that takes away the time and energy required for good parenting.


  • Reduce parental pressures by helping families attain a stable and adequate standard of living that provides for the well-being of their children.

  • Support young families by implementing social, fiscal and taxation policies that recognize the expense and value of raising children. For example, taxation policies should not financially penalize families who choose to have one parent stay home with their children.

Developing sense of competence

Children’s confidence to try new things increases when they are encouraged to explore their environment and receive positive feedback for their efforts to master new skills. Children who are helped to succeed and praised for their success develop a sense of competence. Children who see themselves as competent learners are likely to have positive attitudes toward trying new things. In fact, positive self-esteem and sense of competence have been shown to help protect children from other risks that threaten their healthy development. (186)

Children’s natural temperaments also influence their willingness to enter new situations and try new activities. Some children are naturally more shy or anxious than others. Sensitive parents know how to support and encourage their children in ways that build a sense of increasing competence without pushing them in ways that increase their anxiety.

Being able to take turns, to wait patiently and to deal with anger in non-aggressive ways helps children become accepted by their peers. These social skills demonstrate a child’s capacity for impulse control. Although the seeds of self-control are planted in infancy, children have to learn to apply it in many different situations during their preschool years.

A number of qualities in parent-children relationships appear to help children increase their competence, including in areas of self-control. Parents help children by establishing high, but reasonable expectations for their behaviour while maintaining warm, highly responsive relationships. Demands on children should be firm and consistent, but should not be coercive or excessively restrictive. (7,75)

Since children’s physical and mental abilities change rapidly in the first years of life, a parent’s expectations of a child needs to be guided by a knowledge of child development. Parents who are informed about child development have more realistic expectations of their children and can make more appropriate choices both in terms of the encouragement they provide for their children to try new activities and the strategies they use to help children develop healthy impulse control.

Praise when children demonstrate good self-control, and helping children develop strategies to deal with situations they find difficult help to reinforce their sense of competence in this area.

  • Set clear, realistic expectations and recognize your child’s efforts to meet these expectations.

  • Be available to supervise, coach and problem solve.

  • Include your children in family decision-making and problem-solving.
    Encouraging preschoolers in their efforts to master new skills will help build their sense of competence.

  • Welcome families with preschool children by providing space for parent resource centres and preschools where children can develop their competence and skills.

  • Provide access to recreation programs and learning resources such as libraries and museums to all families with young children. User fees should not prevent low-income families from enjoying these important resources for healthy child development.

  • Encourage developers to address children’s needs for play that develops competence when designing new neighbourhoods and apartment buildings.

  • Provide financial support to preschools that help children develop competencies, and assist in renovating facilities or buying equipment.

  • Support preschool education, especially for children living in high risk environments. This support should be viewed as an investment in their competencies and future as high school graduates and productive workers and citizens. The Perry Preschool Project provides a dramatic example of the possible pay-off for preschoolers when they grow up.

Supportive communities

Although research on how community environments affect children and families is complex, some studies suggest the quality of community life has an effect on children independent of their individual family circumstances. (234) Therefore, broad strategies that build healthy communities are likely to have a positive effect on the healthy development of children.

In uncivic communities that are marked by an absence of shared beliefs, values and norms and by persuasive mistrust and a lack of social cohesion, a higher level of parental involvement and more effective discipline and monitoring are needed to overcome the negative effects of the community. (190) Neighbourhoods high in crime, density and drug abuse but low in cohesion or a sense of control are likely to undermine even many committed families’ attempts to raise children successfully. (337)

  • If you live in a high crime or isolated community, get other parents together and make plans to take action on the problems and to support each other’s parenting practices.

  • Make schools an integral part of the community. Open your doors to parenting groups and play groups in disadvantaged communities.

  • Initiate programs and policies to build healthy, safe neighbourhoods.
  • Use positive community policing efforts to help build healthy, safe neighbourhoods.
  • Support parent groups who are taking action to improve community conditions.

  • Support efforts to build healthy neighbourhoods and communities where your business is located.

  • Support demonstration projects and research on creating healthy, safe and supportive communities. Healthy Babies, Healthy Children is an example of a government-sponsored homevisiting program designed to identify children from birth to age six who are risk for poor development and to intervene to help those children get a good start in life.

Protection from abuse

In 1996, children under 18 were victims in 22 percent of the assaults reported to police, accounting for a total of almost 23,000 assaults. Sexual assaults accounted for about one-quarter of all assaults against children. Family members were accused in 20 percent of physical assaults and 32 percent of all sexual assaults against children. Almost 70 percent of victims under the age of three were physically assaulted by family members, and parents accounted for 58 percent of those assaults. Fathers were responsible for 73 percent of physical assaults and 98 percent of sexual assaults committed by parents. (338)

Victims of abuse are found in all classes and ethnocultural communities. Children who have physical or mental disabilities are especially vulnerable to abuse, as are children who are isolated from friends, brothers and sisters, and adults whom they can trust. (339)

Experiencing abuse has a traumatic effect on children both in their young years and as adults later in life. Victims who are physically or emotionally abused as children are more likely to suffer physical and emotional problems as adults and are more likely to suffer additional abuse as adults. (340)

  • Reduce conflict in your home. Talk with other family members about child raising preferences and work to resolve problems in respectful, non-violent ways. Growing up in a negative emotional environment is detrimental to children’s development. (55, 106, 196)

  • Get help to resolve differences among adults in the home before it escalates to an abusive situation.

  • Set reasonable expectations for child behaviour that fit with the abilities and stage of development of your child.

  • Use minimal coercion and rewards. Apply fair discipline and logical consequences before you get angry.

  • Get help immediately if you feel overwhelmed and out of control in dealing with your children.

  • Seek help from a local agency or a distress centre telephone line if you or your child is being abused by a family member.

  • If you suspect that your child or a child in your neighbourhood or care is being abused, promptly report your concerns to a child welfare agency or social services department in your community.

  • Provide children with a safe environment and the knowledge and skills they need to talk about abusive situations.

  • Preschool and kindergarten teachers who suspect that a child is being abused, promptly report your concerns to a child welfare agency or social services department in your community.

  • Develop policies and programs that prevent child abuse, neglect and family violence, and remove young children from violent situations in a timely manner.

  • Provide homevisiting programs. Many evaluations of these programs have shown an improvement in parent-child relationships as a result. (22, 89) The Hawaii Healthy Start program is a good example of a community program that successfully lowered the rates of child abuse and neglect for children aged four or under.

  • Support parents who are experiencing mental health or family problems by training supervisors to recognize parents who are under stress, and providing employee assistance programs (EAP) and information on family counseling and abuse prevention resources in the community.

  • Develop laws and policies that prevent child abuse, neglect and family violence, and remove young children from violent situations in a timely manner.

  • Provide adequate support to child protection agencies and social service workers.

  • Reduce parental stress by helping families attain a stable and adequate standard of living that provides for the well-being of their children. Provide job creation and training programs for parents, fair unemployment benefits and adequate minimum wage laws.

Aware of any innovative programs, legislation or initiatives that are relevant to this positive outcome?
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We are always on the lookout for specific strategies proven to be successful (or showing promise), that illustrate work done in this area. After reading this section of the site, click on the icon below and share your ideas.

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