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Understanding How Children Mature

A Child's Independence, the Third Year

As your child grows older there are more activities you can do together, but also more potential conflicts.
As your child grows older there are more activities you can do together, but also more potential conflicts.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

The first half of the third year may remain difficult for you and your child as far as issues of control and dependence are concerned. Although your child's language and self-care skills are more advanced, in some ways your child continues to feel like a tightrope walker, occasionally teetering with uncertainty over what she can and cannot do. Try to recognize your child's need for independence. By promoting independence along with emotional support, parents can help their children through this stage. An extra cuddle or more lavish praise for good behavior helps to counteract some of the normal negative behavior.

Control and Discipline

One management technique that works quite well with toddlers is the use of praise. To help your child develop a positive self-image, you should encourage and delight in your child's new accomplishments and achievements. Praise ("That's good! I like that block tower."), hugs, and kisses are important ingredients in promoting a good self-image. At two and three years of age, a child's self-esteem-how she feels about herself-often reflects her perception of her parents' opinions of her. Interest in and enjoyment of your child's play set the tone for a healthy self-concept.


One of the most difficult jobs parents have is setting reasonable limits for their children. Letting your child know what's expected, what's tolerable, and what's unacceptable is a long-term process that continues well into the teenage years. As early as in the first year, for example, you set some limits by not letting your child stick her fingers into the electrical outlets.

You can defuse some potential conflicts by rearranging the environment so you don't have to worry about your child's hurting herself, breaking your valuable vase, or eating a poisonous plant. Childproofing the major living quarters in your house allows your child to safely explore many interesting and different objects.

Of course, changing the environment does not take care of those times when a direct confrontation is necessary. It helps to quickly and adeptly address the situation. Tell your child what you don't like about what she is doing. Give her a simple reason why, for example, pulling the tail on the cat hurts the cat. Parents don't need to use more than one or two sentences of explanation. Ask the child to stop. If that doesn't work, put the child on a chair for a few minutes either in the same room with you or in a different room for a time-out. After the allotted time has elapsed, you can then talk about what happened.

Later in the day, but not immediately afterward, be sure to let your child know you still love her by giving her a hug and a kiss. On a particularly bad day, you may even want to engage her in a very special time just for the two of you. The earlier you begin to set aside a special chair or place to be used for thinking about unacceptable behavior, the sooner your child learns that some behaviors are just not acceptable.

In the early years, parents take on the roles of care-giver, teacher, and playmate. Creating an emotionally supportive environment is essential for your child to become independent yet aware of her parents' love and acceptance. On occasion, behavioral extremes are acceptable for two year olds. As a regular pattern, however, the child who is always out of control or overly compliant is telling you something. These are warning signals that suggest you should take a good, hard look at your disciplining techniques. Ask yourself: Are my methods so loose that the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors are unclear? Am I so rigid in setting limits that my child is afraid to upset me by resisting my controls? Am I providing enough time for relaxed activities and play with my child? Learning how to discipline a child takes time and practice.

By the end of the third year, with increased growth, maturity, and confidence, your child becomes willing to relinquish some of her insistence on being independent. She may even give up some of her executive independence ("I want to do it myself!") for your love and affection. She obtains great pleasure from praise and attention.

Her participation in such body management activities as feeding, toilet training, and dressing becomes a matter of routine. Although many three-year-old children continue to have high activity levels, their activity begins to be more directed, with a far less frenetic quality.

The secure three year old may allow you to help her set limits. This new stage has been called the stage of volitional dependence because the child's needs can now be brought under her control. Your child is less impulsive and more manageable; she understands an occasional explanation of rules -- and actually follows the rules, too. For example, when you are working in one room, you may no longer have to worry about leaving your child to play in another, but instead can trust her not to misbehave.

 Feelings and Emotions

Of particular importance, but sometimes overlooked, is talking to your children about how they feel. By the age of three, children experience a wide range of emotions: They feel afraid, mad, sad, and glad. While children may not have exactly the same meanings for these feelings that adults do, children can learn to label and identify good and bad feelings. Don't underestimate their capacity for understanding emotions and feelings.

Parents can help their children develop a language for expressing and dealing with feelings by giving the feelings names. While doing so, parents have a responsibility to manage their own feelings to help children deal with theirs. Sometimes, our own childhood experiences creep into how we handle emotions with our children. All of us have trouble with some feelings. For instance, difficulties with such feelings as anger and aggression may spill into our parenting. If we cannot tolerate angry feelings, we might try to prevent our children from displaying anger by saying "That's no reason to be angry!" when in fact a child may have good reason to be angry. Through the use of play, you can provide children with some emotional avenues for anger, fear, and anxiety.

Self Concept

Between their second and third birthdays, most children become fairly competent language users. They readily use the personal pronouns "I," "me," and "mine," particularly to defend ownership of their toys and possessions. They have great difficulty letting anyone else play with something that is theirs.

Around this time, your toddler can refer to himself by his own name. Sometimes, when playing with dolls or superheroes, your toddler may reenact earlier events. He may assign different roles to the dolls. If you sit down and play directly with your toddler, you can get a glimpse of the inner workings of his mind. This glimpse may be both delightful and unnerving, since you may observe firsthand how your child views your parenting style. Many parents have heard their sweet little boy harshly send his favorite stuffed animal to his room because it didn't behave.

As your child becomes more independent, she will feel more comfortable being on her own.
As your child becomes more independent, she will feel more comfortable being on her own.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

By three years of age, your child has a good sense of "me" and "you" and of "self" versus "nonself." With better cognitive capacities and a wider repertoire of experiences, the three year old has internalized memories of the significant people in his life -- his parents. As his sense of self grows, a child's personality represents more of what he will be like as he grows older. He readily displays his preferences and dislikes in how he interacts with the world; for example, some children already prefer very physical activities, while others choose quiet, sedentary play.

Aggression and Fighting

Fighting usually centers on wanting to have a toy someone else has. Aggression is a normal part of growing up and may be related to our survival instincts. Most children are fairly aggressive when defending their belongings and themselves.

There are no easy answers for how to handle excessive aggression. But it certainly doesn't make sense to the child or to the parent to handle aggression with aggression. Imagine this scenario: Two sisters are fighting over a toy. One parent comes in, yells at them to stop fighting, and hits one of them because the child won't give the toy back. What does this teach the children? There's quite a mixed message here -- it's all right to fight and to hit but only if you are bigger and more powerful than your adversary.

Parental handling does influence how aggressive a child will be. Children in families where physical violence, such as beating (as opposed to a mild slap on the wrist or a gentle spank on the bottom), hitting, or spanking, is used as punishment generally turn out to be more aggressive than other children. The least aggressive children come from families that are nonpunitive, nonpermissive, and nonrejecting. The parents in such families are consistent in their handling of aggression. They don't use harsh physical punishment or unnecessarily harsh language. They set firm and clear limits about what they expect of their children, and they are accepting of their children.

Consistency is important in whatever intervention technique you use to deal with your child's aggression. A useful technique is to remove the child from the fight and isolate her for a few minutes. Quick handling of the situation, before the fighting gets out of hand, helps. Once your two year old can talk, ask her to talk about how she feels or what she wants. Doing so helps her learn to express herself verbally instead of physically.

Sometimes, providing your child with an outlet for her pent-up energy helps reduce the level of her aggression. Just as with adults, active physical exercise helps release the tension and reduce the level of stress. Imaginative play also helps her work through aggressive tendencies. Parents can capitalize on the child's imagination to help work out conflicts.


It is especially wondrous and exciting to watch imagination develop in your child. Through the windows of your child's play and the talking he does to himself, the pictures he draws, and the stories he tells, you can actually follow your child, the little movie director, as he casts a set of characters into their various roles. Fantasy develops along with your child's more sophisticated knowledge of the world, although he cannot yet totally differentiate fantasy from reality.

Some children have such great imaginations that they tell the most unbelievable stories -- and sometimes get in trouble for doing so. Many children have imaginary friends. Sometimes these creations become scapegoats for the child's own behavior. When the child does something wrong, he may say the imaginary friend was actually the culprit. Usually, the presence of an imaginary friend is just a sign of a healthy, imaginative child. But imaginary friends can become too powerful: They can interfere with your child's ability to accept responsibility, their presence can exclude other friends, and they can do all your child's talking. Luckily, this doesn't happen very often. If you're concerned about your child's imaginary companion, you may want to consult a professional.


Presidential commissions have confirmed the profound effects of excessive television violence on children's aggressive behavior. These reports indicate that a steady diet of violent television programming is related to an increase in children's fighting. If you do not want to have a physically aggressive child, you may consider monitoring your child's television viewing habits. One way to do this is to count the number of aggressive acts in your child's Saturday morning cartoons. Then you can decide if you would like her to continue to watch them.

Cartoon-watching also seems to negatively impact children's activity levels. While they sit and stare at the television set, they appear zombie-like: Afterward, these same children act overexcited, running helter-skelter with little direction or content in their play. In all likelihood, a steady diet of superheroes and monsters can have negative consequences. Also, because two and three year olds are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, the evil warriors and monsters may seem real to them, and the characters in some of these daytime shows can come back to haunt toddlers at nighttime, manifesting as nightmares or fear of the dark. To make matters worse, it is often difficult to tell where the cartoons end and the commercials begin.

However, television, in moderation, can be used for positive ends as well. Good educational programs, such as Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, have much to teach your toddler.

But always remember that too much television viewing, even of high-quality programs, can lead to an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle. And even the best programs can't match the benefits of real experiences with real people.

Multiple Attachments

By three years of age, your child is likely to have a number of relationships with people other than his parents. He may have a favorite babysitter or just a good friend. He prefers to play with children his own age rather than playing with you, although he still enjoys and needs you. He and his friends can spend a long time at play without any fighting and with some sharing of toys.

As your child's world expands -- for example, when he goes to a child care center or preschool -- the influences on your child's self-esteem also include new people's attitudes toward him. It's essential for you to provide him with the security he needs so he can go out and explore his surroundings.

While your child may be quite ready to go off to preschool, once in a while he may slip back to his less-sure former self and not want to leave your side. These are normal separation reactions. His going to preschool is a big emotional step for both of you.

Here is an example of a three year old boy we knew. It was the first week of preschool. Every day the boy's mother walked him to the classroom, gave him a hug and a kiss, and said goodbye. Each time, the boy cried uncontrollably, refusing to take his jacket off for the whole day. Knowingly, the teachers respected the child's need to hold onto his jacket. For this child, removing his jacket meant that he was going to stay at this place without his mother. In a way, he was unsure that he was ready for all this independence. Both mother and child benefitted from the teachers' warm assurance that everything would be all right. Gradually, the teachers enticed the child into the fun the others were having.

Some preschools are quite aware of children's difficulties with separation and build this into their programs by slowly introducing children into the classroom. For some children, preschool is the first time they are on their own. It is, on the one hand, an obvious milestone, but on the other hand, it is just one of the many steps that take your child gradually toward independence.

As a newborn your child is completely dependent on you for everything from food to clothes to companionship. As your child grows physically, he also grows mentally and becomes more aware of himself and the people around him. It can sometimes be painful and sometimes joyous, but every child matures and becomes more independent. While no two children are alike, you now have a general idea of what you can expect during this tumultuous time.

©Publications International, Ltd.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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