3–4 Years : What Toddlers Want and Need - A sense of identity & Development of self-esteem

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Thankfully, year 3–4 can sometimes feel like the calm after the storm for parents. Your toddler will still be having tantrums and testing limits, but with her newfound understanding of what’s right and what’s not, she will be eager to do things correctly in order to win your approval.

“Rebecca is developing a very loving nature and shows great concern if anyone is upset.”

—“Rebecca is developing a very loving nature and shows great concern if anyone is upset.”

Your child enjoys more structured play and activities now and will be much more achievement-oriented because she craves your approval. Your positive regard will, in turn, help her to develop self-esteem.

An awareness of others

Your child will now understand how his behavior affects the people around him and he will generally be more settled in the company of others.

Tuning in to others

Now that your child can empathize with others, she will also start to develop her ability to understand that someone else may see things differently than her. This is an important and necessary part of learning to develop friendships and later social relationships. Psychologists call it “theory of mind.” It is the skill that enables us to learn to empathize with, understand, and predict the behavior of others.

Your child starts to understand that she is a separate person with separate thoughts when she develops the ability to share attention with another person; for example, when she understands that someone else is sharing her interest by looking in the same direction and pointing . This leads to her developing a more sophisticated understanding of the mental state (thoughts and feelings) of others, which coincides with her becoming more concerned with the feelings of others and more aware of her own behavior.

She may begin to ask lots of “Why?” questions as she tries to make sense of the world. During year 3–4, she will progress from being able to hold two different perspectives, but only one at a time, to being able to hold in mind two (or more) perspectives simultaneously. This skill is encouraged each time you help your child share with others and explain why people act or feel a certain way. Your child will become much more aware and observant of how other people behave at this age. Help her to learn by giving clear and concise answers when she asks “Why?” questions about other people’s needs and feelings.

A sense of identity

Your child’s sense of identity began to develop during her first year, when she recognized, for example, that her hand belonged to her. Gradually, through her daily experiences and interaction with other people, she is increasing her sense of self.

By the age of 3–4, she knows:

Your child is unlikely to describe herself in terms of her personality at this age, but she is starting to learn that there is a difference between her private self and herself as others see her: her public self. She is too young to hold beliefs or personal ideals about self-image or identity. Views about how she should ideally behave or act will develop later, when she becomes an adolescent. At this age self-identity is developed in the following ways:

  • The difference between her physical self (“I am brown-haired, I am dark skinned, and I have brown eyes”), and…

  • Her psychological self (“I am funny/smart/sassy”).

  • How she is related to other people and what she can do (“I am my mother’s daughter and I can run fast”).

Other people’s reactions

Your reaction to your child tells her what your expectations are of her behavior, her achievements, and her beliefs. You are the mirror through which your child views herself. The more judgmental you are toward her, the harsher she will be on herself.

Comparing self with others

Comparing who we are and what we have with others begins at quite a young age. Children tend to make comparisons based on physical attributes and belongings. They can be quite jealous of others (and harsh on themselves). Your child needs you to help keep comparisons in perspective and teach her the qualities that you and others value.


Children naturally identify with significant others in their life and use them as role models. Role-play is an important part of development at this age, although encouraging your child to have confidence in her views and choices can help her to begin to think for herself and not always “follow the pack.”

Development of self-esteem

Self-esteem is drawn from a sense of “fitting in” and understanding society’s rules and expectations, and is linked to a sense of self-awareness of gender and personal expectations of life. People with high self-esteem tend not to reflect everything that happens back on themselves. They do not consider external events to be their “fault” and have some belief in their ability to influence or control the outcome of events.

If you can foster these skills in your child from a young age, she is more likely to grow up with a strong sense of self-esteem. Children with high self-esteem have high expectations of themselves and are therefore more likely to achieve more highly; this in turn feeds self-esteem. You can foster self-esteem by encouraging your child to make her own decisions, praising when praise is due, and ensuring you allow her to make things up to you if you have needed to criticize her behavior.


She now recognizes herself as a complete individual and begins to understand that she—and her behavior—is sometimes judged by others, especially you.

Your toddler’s view of the world

Here’s an insight into what your toddler might be thinking…

  • “I am not a boy! I am a girl, and sometimes I am a fairytale princess.”

  • “I try to be good because that makes Mommy and Daddy happy and I get an extra story at bedtime.”

  • “When Mommy and Daddy go to work I go to Grandma’s. I love my grandma and I dress up in her party dress and hat. I know Mommy will come and get me after I’ve had my dinner. They say they will come at 7 o’clock, but I can’t tell the time.”

  • “Sometimes I see monsters in my bedroom, but they go away when Mommy puts the light on. Daddy says they are called ‘shadows’.”

  • “I have a friend named ‘Tina’ who goes everywhere with me. We have pretend adventures and then she is a princess, too. Sometimes Mommy and Daddy talk to her, and I tell them Tina did things which I actually did so I don’t get in trouble.”

  • “Sometimes I brush my teeth if Mommy’s with me, but I only like the toothpaste, really.”

  • “I like dressing myself now. I use the big toilet now, too.”

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