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Your child's emotional development 3 to 4 years

3 to 4 Years
Help your child talk about, label and deal with emotions

Your child at a glance

Your child is starting to calm her emotions more easily, and play is becoming more cooperative. During this year you are likely to see your child:
  • Gradually finding ways to cope effectively with different emotions and situations
  • Fewer frustrations as she is able to do more things herself
  • Starting to take more interest in cooperative play and showing the beginnings of empathy
  • Talking about own and others' emotions more and starting to understand what caused the emotions (at a basic level)
  • Engaging in ‘dramatic play’, playing out social and emotional situations
  • Displaying strong imagination in pretend play as well as sometimes struggling to separate fantasy from reality
  • Experiencing the start of developing identity, confidence and self esteem

Your Child's story

Girl smilingYour child is now starting to view herself as a whole person, meaning that she has a fuller understanding of having her own body, mind and feelings. She will gradually find ways of taking more control over her impulses and emotions, coping with how she is feeling and helping herself calm down. This means that this year you will probably experience her as more balanced and content (fewer tantrums). She is struggling less with frustrations and overwhelming emotions, she is able to do more things unaided and capable of waiting to have her 'wants' met. Also, language skills are improving, helping her express what she wants and how she feels with words without having to 'behave loudly'.

Although he is still self-centred at this age, your child is probably starting to become more interested in playing with other children and taking joy in sharing experiences with them. He is also beginning to understand that other people have feelings that may be different from his own. You may hear him talk about and label own and others’ emotions. At a basic level he is starting to understand what has caused certain emotions in a situation, and may start to show empathy (e.g. he may get upset when seeing others upset or offer a hug).

Pretend play is something you have already seen, but your child now has an even greater imagination along with more experience to draw on. She will increasingly engage in 'dramatic' play, where emotions are acted out as well as behaviours. It is usually based on something she has experienced directly or something she has seen you do. This is how she gains understanding and learns about new skills, social situations and feelings she has experienced. Some children this age have imaginary friends. Imagination is important, but note that it can be hard to separate fantasy from reality at this age; e.g. she may imagine seeing ‘monsters’ (objects or shadows in her room), or find it hard to ‘shake’ a bad dream. She may also still be afraid of the dark, or that you will leave her.

Smiling ToddlerWith an increasing need for independence, your will often insist on managing to do things like using cutlery to eat his food, brushing his teeth and getting dressed. He will feel and express real joy and pride when he manages to complete something himself. He may also start to feel easier about leaving you, however prefers to have you or other familiar adults nearby when exploring and playing.

Your child is learning new skills and behaviours at a rapid rate, and dealing with more complex emotions. How she feels about her own abilities, and how she deals with all the emotions she is experiencing will impact on her developing identity and confidence. Her self-concept (and self-compassion) is shaped by how she feels about herself as well as how she feels others perceive her. She is starting to evaluate her own abilities to cope with new situations and challenges.

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

Girl with teddyHelp your child talk about her feelings in various situations. Help her learn to effectively label and deal with her emotions. Although tantrums are fewer and usually less intense, 'melt-downs' can still occur, e.g. during stressful situations or when she’s tired. Rather than feeling that she 'should know better by now', keep supporting and comforting her like you have before. Help her make sense of what was happening and create more effective strategies for next time. You are your child's guide and 'emotional coach' in how to cope with emotional changes, control impulses, keep going in the face of failure or frustration, and to show compassion and empathy.

Play continues to be critical for your child's learning.
  • Playing simple board and card games with you helps him practice sharing and taking turns
  • Engaging in art and storytelling gives room to explore and play with his imagination and creativity
  • Painting and drawing provides an opportunity for him to share something from his 'world' with you, and will be so proud when you display his artwork.
  • Play is also crucial in your child’s development of identity and confidence

Self compassion is key to the development of resilience, confidence and how your child feels about herself. You can help her process by listening to and talking about how she is feeling and why, finding ways to feel better in the moment and plan for more effective ways to deal with such a situation in the future. And of course, you play an important part in making your child feel good about herself as a person. It’s important to focus on her behavior when providing praise or critique.

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