Emotions & Self-Awareness Helping Your Three-Year-Old Understand and Manage Emotions

Emotional self-awareness involves identifying and understanding one's emotions ― including "big feelings" that can sometimes overwhelm us. As Fred Rogers reminds us: "When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary." Most three-year-olds can use simple emotion words — such as "happy," "sad," "excited" and "scared" ― to describe how they are feeling either during or after an emotional reaction. They can also begin to recognize concrete events that cause them to feel happy, sad, excited, and scared. 

Find ideas to help your child approach strong feelings:

Name Emotions

Three-year-olds are still developing their expressive language skills and often need help using their words when they feel emotional. Parents can "listen" to children's behavior and then help them put a name to their emotions. It might sound something like this:

  • "You are sad. You had to leave the park, and you are crying because you still wanted to play."
  • "You are mad! Your brother knocked your tower down, and you are yelling because you feel MAD."
  • "Look at that smile! You are happy you got to pet that cute puppy."

The Cookie Games

Cookie Monster is playing in the cookie games! Help him calm his feelings and win medals in three sporting events.

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Circle Back

After the child has calmed down, circle back and talk about what happened, including how the child felt. Remind them that everyone ― including you ― feels this way sometimes. Don't be surprised if a child wants to hear the story about "the time I got mad at the store" over and over again. Repetition has benefits: these stories can become a reference point for talking about future big emotions.

Simple Games That Explore Feelings

Your child can identify facial expressions and participate in a "parade of feelings" to practice naming emotions.

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Age 3: Self-Awareness: Build Vocabulary Through Play

You can turn emotional vocabulary into a game. Take turns choosing a "feeling word" and then expressing it through exaggerated facial expressions and body language. Start with simple words like "happy" (big smiles, waving hands) and "sad" (frowning face, drooping shoulders). Let them look in the mirror or take a picture on your phone so they can see what they look like. As kids get the hang of it, add more complex words such as "excited," "surprised" and "frustrated."

Feel the Music

Music is one way people can express how they are feeling. In this game, your child can express himself by choosing instruments and sounds that represent the feelings of happy, sad and mad.

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Help Your Child Manage Emotions with Daniel Tiger

Through imagination, creativity and music, Daniel and his friends learn how to manage big and overwhelming feelings using strategies grounded in the teachings of Mister Rogers.

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Activity Finder: Learn With Your Three-Year-Old

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