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Social Skills and Emotional Development in 3-Year-Olds

Updated on February 28, 2013

One of the most important aspects of any child's growth is their social and emotional development. By the age of three, your child is able to speak and express themselves more clearly than they ever have before. Three year olds are on their way to establishing greater independence, developing new friendships (though some may be imaginary), and finding more mature ways of expressing their feelings of anger and/or frustration.

Emotional and Social Development of the Three Year Old: What to Expect

In terms of emotional and social development, many parents don't quite know what to expect or how to respond. They may have gotten use to the toddler who throws a tantrum in the middle of the floor and they are definitely not at all familiar with the three year old who emphatically declares, "I'm mad!" Here are a few typical three year old behaviors that may help you be a little better prepared.

  • Improved emotional understanding. Many children in this age group begin to understand their emotions and also have the vocabulary to express them. They may say, "I'm sad," "I'm happy," or "I'm mad" to let you know exactly how they are feeling. They may use their words more instead of acting out physically (for example, by hitting). This is a good thing and allowing these expressions will help your child to deal with their own emotions effectively.
  • Indicates a preference for things and understands what belongs to him/her. Many three year olds are quite territorial. They may declare, "that's mine" when others touch a toy that belongs to them.
  • Tattles when wronged. The concept of right and wrong really begins to sink in for this age group and they are often quick to tell when they feel they have been wronged. Don't worry, they are also quick to forgive (or forget) and resume friendships without a second thought.
  • Begins to understand sharing and taking turns (though they may not always like it).
  • Will engage in cooperative play with other children. Most younger children engage in parrallel play. This means they play side by side but not really together. By the age of three many children learn to play together and though this type of play they develop friendships.
  • Begins to show empathy for others. When another person is sick or hurt the three year old may attempt to provide comfort or do things to make them feel better.

Though the average three year old is beginning to understand their feelings and to express them, they often have very little control over them. Children at this age can be quite impulsive and often cannot restrain themselves from expressing their feelings. If they find something funny they will laugh and if they become sad they will cry. They are in a sense ruled by their emotions.


Tips for Parenting a Three Year Old

Your child is no longer a toddler. They are developing a sense of autonomy and independence that will carry them through life. They are taking in knowledge about themselves and the world around them. Here are some tips for those parenting a three year old:

  • Provide warnings regarding changes and transitions. Tell your child when it is fifteen minutes before bedtime or ten minutes before it's time to go indoors. This age groups often has a difficult time with transitions
  • Household routines and rituals are important. Schedules give a three year old a sense os security.
  • Point out colors and numbers as you go about your day. This is a great way to get your three year old interested in learning.
  • Encourage independent activities to foster self reliance.


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