Articles & Guides
What can we help you find?

3-Year-Old Behavior: Milestones in Social Development

Your little one is about to get a lot more popular. Know the social milestones that you can expect your 3-year-old to reach this year.

3-Year-Old Behavior: Milestones in Social Development

Those first two year’s of your baby’s life were filled with amazing growth and awe-inspiring development. She went from a helpless infant to a fun-loving, curious toddler. Now what should you expect for 3-year-old behavior? During this year, your little one will be excited to learn, to explore her imagination and — for the first time in her young life — to play with friends.

According to Gera Jacobs, co-author of “Play, Projects and Preschool Standards,” the social milestones of a 3-year-old center around play and imagination. It’s important for parents to remember that 3-year-olds don’t intuitively know how to play well with others, Jacobs says. “We expect to have to teach kids reading, writing, math,” she adds, “but we presume children just know social skills automatically — but they don’t. It’s a whole new skill set for them to learn.”

And read 

our guide to developmental milestones for kids

Social Milestones Your 3-Year-Old Will Master

As your child’s understanding of the world around her continues to grow, her curiosity explodes. She’s asking questions, interested in new experiences and doing things independently. For the first time, your child sees herself as an independent person, with her own feelings, body and mind, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

As her independence grows, it’s important to give her time to learn new things for herself, such as getting dressed or brushing her teeth. According to Betsy Brown Braun, author of the parenting book “Just Tell Me What to Say,” “Hurrying is the enemy for a 3-year-old. If you don’t have the time to let your child do things for herself, then you should start your routine a little earlier to accommodate the extra time she’ll need.” This way, there’s time for her to get dressed (with a little fashion advice from you).

Now that she’s feeling independent from you, she’s also gathering a fun social circle to help with that other social milestone — play, according to the AAP. She’s learning to cooperate with other children and play with them, instead of engaging in the parallel play that dominated interactions until now. These new relationships can be a great boon for her confidence, too. “There’s a feeling of satisfaction that goes along with beginning to develop her own friendships,” Braun says. With this milestone comes learning how to negotiate solutions to conflicts and how to share with others.

Fostering Positive Growth

What can you do to support your child during this year? Continue to read and to talk and be consistent with your child, Braun and Jacobs say. Provide plenty of chances for active, imaginative learning experiences. “Your 3-year-old doesn’t learn by sitting and having someone talk at her all day,” Jacobs says. She learns with hands-on play, simple experiments, repetitive singing and outdoor activities.

Encourage your social butterfly’s sharing and communication skills with her new friends. Give them lots of time to be together to play. Now that your little one can understand other perspectives, sharing is the natural next step in her social progression. Braun says her favorite way of teaching sharing is to set a kitchen timer, so kids understand that everyone gets toy time. Remember that your little one will mirror the behaviors she sees around her, so set a positive example. “Children learn so much by watching us,” Jacobs says. “You see it in their attitudes, how they treat others, how they talk. If you talk kindly, calmly and with respect, that’s how they’re going to learn to talk, too.”

Often, 3-year-old behavior can test your patience. It’s natural for her to test boundaries, to be defiant and even to be “bossy,” Braun and Jacobs both say. But these are temporary phases. One other thing to remember is that each child develops at her own rate, so don’t worry if your child doesn’t share her toys with you right on her third birthday — the time will come. But, if you’re concerned about the rate of your child’s social development, consult your pediatrician.

Read our Overview of Milestones for 3 Year Olds.

Kara Murphy is mother to a 5-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy who worries about monsters and is reluctant to share.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.