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Your child’s emotional development 2 to 3 years

2 to 3 Years
Find how you can best support and calm your child when emotions run high

Your child at a glance

Your child is asserting even more independence, and is becoming more aware of own and others’ feelings. During this year you are likely to see your child:
  • Asserting her independence and gaining a stronger sense of herself as her own person
  • Experiencing mood swings, and at times finding it hard to control his emotions
  • Starting to develop new fears (stranger anxiety diminishing), e.g. fear of the dark
  • Preferring to know what is going to happen and feeling insecure if routines are changing
  • Becoming more aware of own and others’ feelings, showing pride and also sympathy
  • Starting to experience self-evaluation (being ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘nice’)

Your child's story

Baby LaughingYour child’s sense of self is even stronger now, and he is experiencing a burst of being his own person who makes things happen. You may see assertive behaviours around what he wants to do. He will want to do things himself in his own way, and may often say 'no' to what you suggest or ask of him. If he is told he can't do something, or something just isn't right for him, proper temper tantrums can appear.

During tantrums your child can turn into a little ‘storm’, crying, screaming, throwing herself on the ground, perhaps even biting or kicking. Self-control is a challenge at this age, and your child needs your support, explaining what is right and wrong, and helping her calm down. Maintaining a sense of security is also important for self-control, e.g. through having a consistent and predictable routine. Un-notified changes to the routine will often not be a welcome surprise; she may become upset or react with challenging behaviours (e.g. aggressive or refusing to cooperate).

You will probably see that your child's fear of strangers is decreasing around this age. However, he may start find other things frightening, such as the dark, specific objects or the toilet flushing. He may also experience rapid mood changes and can go between extremes, e.g. dependent to independent, aggressive to calm, helpful to stubborn. Separation from you can still be difficult for your toddler, perhaps at bedtime or when going to daycare. This may start to get easier when she is approaching 3 years.

Your toddler may start to talk about feelings more, increasingly showing awareness of her own and other's feelings. You may see her reacting e.g. to others’ anger, affection or sadness in others, and also starting to show feelings of sympathy or compassion. She will display pride and is now more aware of praise. Importantly, at this age she will also experience the start of self-evaluation, and may therefore pick up things she will interpret as her being good, bad, nice etc.

What you can do to support and encourage your child's development

Help your child when he is struggling to control his emotions, find ways to stay calm yourself and understand what your child needs from you. It may be that he needs you to be there quietly until he gets calmer, or he may prefer to be held. During a tantrum your toddler’s emotions are running the show. Wait until things have calmed down before you encourage him to talk with you about what happened and what he might have felt. Your child still has a fairly short attention span at this age, which means he can be relatively easily distracted. Distraction can be a highly effective way of reducing his stress levels and appeal to his positive curiosity. 

Father and child holding hands If you notice some new fears appearing in your child’s world, respect these as they are very real to her. Help her try to talk about what she is feeling and what frightens her. If she is getting anxious when separated from you, in particular at bedtime, find ways to help her cope. You know your child best; try some bedtime tips that you think are going to work for her.

Sometimes if your child suddenly starts being upset or acting in a difficult way, it could be that changes have been made to his routine. It may not seem like a big deal to us, but children can get anxious if they are confused about what is going on. Explain to your toddler what has changed, why it has changed, and show you understand that he may find it hard.

She is not likely to want to share with other children easily, and this is normal. Do encourage sharing and model this behaviour yourself, but don't feel disappointed, angry or embarrassed when your toddler refuses to share.

Be aware that your child may experience the start of self-evaluation. Talk about your child's behaviours as being acceptable or not, but make sure you separate this from him as a person. E.g. I don't recognise this behaviour in you, because you are usually so good at sharing.

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