It will be a long time until your little one is in a relationship. But the safety, love, and support you give now, as well as the lessons you teach about how to communicate well, will shape their ability to have healthy friendships and relationships later. 

What should I keep in mind? 

The sense of security you provide at this age is a key part of their emotional development. Being there for them when they’re sad or scared, making your home a safe place, and showing affection with holding, hugs, and kisses are all important for your preschoolers emotional development. 

Think through your values when it comes to friendships and relationships so you can give clear messages to your little one. It may be hard to imagine your kid grown up some day. But try for a second to picture them in 15 years or so, having their first romantic relationship and having deeper, long lasting friendships. What values do you want them to carry into those relationships? Maybe things like respect, trust, equality, and communication are high on your list. Think about how you can start to instill those values now, as they’re learning how to interact with you and other people. 

Modeling the behavior you want to see in them is important, too. Don’t forget how observant little kids are, and how they pick up attitudes and behaviors of older kids and adults around them. Treating your kid and and the other people in your life according to your values will do a lot to help them learn how they should treat others.

How do I help my preschooler have healthy friendships?

Whether on the playground, at preschool, or playing in your neighborhood, children this age form fast friendships. Little kids learn a lot from these interactions, using games or make believe to make sense of the world around them.

Your little one may already have their own unique charms and talents that attract new friends wherever they go. Or they may be shy and need encouragement to interact with other kids. But the basis of lasting friendships — like being kind and respectful of boundaries — takes coaching from you and other adults in their life. 

Look for opportunities to encourage sharing, being kind, and taking turns. And set clear expectations about hitting, name-calling, and other bullying behavior. Ask them questions about the kids they know to get them talking about their friends. Be supportive and praise good behavior. 

You can say things like:

  • “Friends are nice to each other and take turns talking and listening to each other.”
  • “You were so kind sharing your toys at the park today. I’m proud of you!” 
  • “When you’re upset, use your words to explain your feelings so people know what you feel and why.”

How do I help my preschooler have healthy boundaries?

Preschoolers don’t always have a sense of what’s OK and what’s not OK when it comes to touching other people’s bodies. Parents and other caretakers can guide them into having respect for other people’s bodies, and understanding that their body deserves respect, too. 

Talking about boundaries now sets them up for conversations about sexual consent down the road when they’re older. Here are some things you can say to encourage healthy boundaries:

  • “Never touch someone else if they tell you not to.” 
  • “You don’t have to kiss or hug anyone you don’t want to.” It can be hard sometimes to deal with family members and friends who may be offended if your kid doesn’t want to hug or kiss them. Pulling that adult aside later and explaining that you’re trying to teach your kid to have healthy boundaries can help.  
  • “If anyone other than me or the doctor ever touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, or touches your penis or vagina, tell them no and to stop. If they don’t stop, tell me or [another trusted adult].” Read more about talking to your preschooler about personal safety. 

How do I help my preschooler build healthy communication skills?

Healthy communication skills means being able to express what you’re thinking and feeling. And it means listening and understanding the thoughts and feelings of other people. Communication is key to forming healthy friendships and relationships of all kinds.

Preschoolers are still developing the language skills to express their emotions — and they will be for many many years to come. Here are some ways you can help them get better at using their words now: 

  • Be there to comfort them and talk it out when they’re upset. Most likely, they already turn to you for love and comfort when something upsets them. Encourage them to keep coming to you, even if they’re worried they’ll get in trouble or you won’t understand. If they come to you for help about something that upsets you, do your best to stay calm so they’ll continue to seek you out in difficult times.
  • Remind your kid to use their words. Ask your kid to speak up when they’re feeling negative emotions instead of acting them out. That way people can know how to help them feel better.
  • Give them tools to process their emotions on their own before they communicate about them. Deep breaths or a little private time can go a long way in helping us figure out why we’re upset and what to say about it. When you see a tantrum coming, encourage them to spend a few minutes in their room to cry, think, breathe deeply, scream into a pillow (or whatever else seems to work for them) so they can come back out calmer and ready to use their words.
  • Have rules about name-calling, insults, teasing, and other bad behaviors. Make sure they know that you don’t tolerate this kind of thing because other people’s feelings matter and everyone deserves love and respect. Telling them why these things are not OK will help them learn empathy and avoid becoming a bully one day.