Happiness for Your 3-Year-Old

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Now Is the Right Time!

As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your 3-year-old child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and developing feelings of happiness is a great way to do it.

Happiness, or feeling a sense of joy or well-being, comes through our connection with others and a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives.1 Three- and four-year-olds come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you and other caregivers. They are in the process of learning their strengths and limitations, why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others. Many of your child’s joyful and happy experiences will occur within these important relationships. Happiness also comes when children feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. In the earliest years, this comes through the play and learning that is so critical to your child’s development. Parents and those in a parenting role share in this learning and exploration.

Yet, we all face challenges. Feeling joy all of the time is not likely and not beneficial. Doing so would limit your child’s experiences with a wide range of important feelings that play a role in their development. Rather than focusing on helping your child to be happy in every moment, helping them to build healthy relationships with others and engage in activities and play that feel meaningful can grow happiness.

Further, growing happiness in children begins with parents who recognize and attend to their own needs for self-care like eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, connecting with friends, and engaging in enjoyable activities. It may feel like you rarely have time to care for yourself because you are focused on caring for your child. But, not taking time for yourself can get in the way of the joy and connection that you feel with your child. Even small amounts of time (taking a walk or calling a friend) can make a big difference for you and your child.

The steps below include specific and practical strategies to help you develop happiness and build a relationship with your child that includes reliable and unconditional support and love.

Why Happiness?

Your child’s connections with you and others and their ability to engage in meaningful learning and play are essential to developing lifelong happiness. Today, in the short term, growing happiness can create:

  • greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
  • a sense of belonging as a member of your family and with peers; and
  • a sense of optimism and wellbeing.

Tomorrow, in the long term, helping your child grow happiness

  • develops a sense of fulfillment;
  • strengthens their immune system and physical health;
  • builds skills that foster resilience;
  • builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
  • deepens family trust and intimacy.

Five Steps for Growing Happiness Download a summary of the 5 steps

This five-step process helps you and your child develop feelings of joy and connection to one another. It also builds important life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).


These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.


Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parent relationship will support these steps.

Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input

Children, ages three to four, are highly active and exploratory, seeking moments for imaginative play. They now can view themselves as a whole person with a body, mind, and spirit, but they are still learning to identify their big feelings. Your child is gaining skill and ability in cooperating with others and working through conflict with pretend play. Your effort to learn from your child will create empathetic interactions that promote healthy listening skills in you and your child. In becoming sensitive to the nuances of your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you

  • are responding to their needs;
  • are growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and sense of healthy relationships;
  • are improving your ability to communicate with one another;
  • are growing your own and their self-control (to calm down when upset and focus their attention); and
  • are modeling empathy and problem-solving skills.


  • Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “What do you notice? How do you feel? How do you think the other child feels? What are you wondering?”
    • For example, if your child is with others who are all feeling very happy at the park, help your child notice their own thoughts and reactions and those of the other children. You might even name what expressions and body language you notice. For example, “I notice a lot of children running and smiling. Do you think they feel happy?”
    • You can also point out when your child is feeling differently from other children, and that it is ok for people to have different reactions to the same experiences. “There are a lot of children going down the slide. They seem to be having fun. I notice that you are staying away from the slide. Your shoulders are slouched down and you look scared. Are you feeling scared?”
    • When reading books, look at the images of people and ask your child what they notice about their feelings and point out ways that people may feel happiness in different ways. Ask, “How do you think that man is feeling? Does that activity make you feel happy too?”
  • If your child is feeling unsure about how to describe feelings or how others are feeling, consider naming what you notice, and then leaving plenty of quiet space for them to think of some ideas. You could say, “I noticed that many of the children seemed happy and excited when they saw the puppy. How did you feel when you saw the puppy?”
  • Each time your child expresses any big feeling, be sure and name it. “You seemed really happy when you were playing in the backyard. You had a smile on your face. Were you feeling happy?” This builds their feelings vocabulary and adds to their self-awareness and ability to manage their feelings. This includes describing and naming the joy they may feel when they have fun with you and the pride they feel when they are able to do something for the first time. Pointing out the many ways they can experience happiness will help them notice it and know what experiences bring them joy.

Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling

As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding a child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How we handle those moments can determine how we help build our child’s happiness. Offering ourselves the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease our anxiety in responding to our child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what their child is going through.2

  • 3-4-year-olds are beginning to understand that their body, thoughts, and feelings are their own.
  • 3-4-year-olds are growing in their imagination and allowing it to drive their play. They may take on an imaginary friend or fear imagined monsters or dangers.
  • 3-4-year-olds are finding that they can create more interesting pretend play by cooperating and negotiating with other children.
  • 3-4-year-olds are talking in five to six word sentences with the ability to tell stories and speak in ways others can understand.
  • 3-4-year olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort and show affection for others without prompting.
  • 3-4-year-olds are beginning to notice differences including culture and race making it a critical time to discuss inclusion and the essential nature of different perspectives in order to learn.
  • 3-4-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.

Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling, practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.


  • Read and “pretend play” together.
    • During reading time, select a book with faces to help your child learn to identify the different feelings of other children, including happiness. Point out what you notice and how you can tell what each child is feeling. You might ask, “Do the children’s feelings change based on what happens in the book?”
    • Replay moments that made your child feel joy during pretend play. “Do you remember how much fun it was to play outside in the backyard yesterday? Let’s play in the living room and pretend we are at the park.”
  • Make your thinking and feelings explicit. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what signs you are giving. “We worked so hard on that painting together. It was fun to paint with you, and I feel so proud of our picture. I am going to hang it on the refrigerator so I can feel happy every time I look at it.”
  • Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “Dancing to the music with you makes me feel so much happiness that I want to give you a big hug.”
  • Help your child see that emotions will change and that all emotions are important and welcome. For example, when your child uses definitive language like, “I am mad at you,” you may respond with:
    • “It is okay to feel mad. Sometimes I get mad and frustrated too. When I am mad I take a deep breath, and it helps me to feel better. Would that help you?”
    • “Do you remember last time when you were frustrated? You took a deep breath, and we were able to work through it together.”
    • “I wonder if we can do something that will help us get through this challenge?”

Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits

Your daily routines are opportunities for you and your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will build relationships with others and have meaningful play that will bring you both joy and happiness. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themselves.

Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy (a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully). This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.


  • Provide opportunities for your child to do things that are more challenging than what they have done before. The goal is to come up with experiences that are just beyond what they are comfortable with so they can experience working hard and mastering a new skill. This may be a challenging social situation like playing with a friend that made them upset in the past.
  • Create regular routines that build your child’s relationships with others. Even a daily walk around the block with a parent can become a cherished routine that is comforting, connecting, and joyful.
  • Use your child’s dolls or stuffed animals to act out moments of happiness so that they become part of your child’s stories and memories. This is a good way to relive special moments and remind your child about the roles that family members and friends have played in their happiness.

Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success

At this point, you are developing your child’s skills to notice what makes them feel happy. You are helping them to notice that other children may have different reactions to the same situations and are teaching them that all feelings are important and welcome. You are allowing them to practice so they can learn how to begin to handle their feelings independently.

Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. This support reinforces your parent-child relationship and helps your child to know you are there to support them when they experience any feeling. Even if it is something that is very hard to talk about, such as not feeling happy or not liking a friend or activity that makes you happy. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.


  • Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed that you like playing with your friend and you asked her if she would like to play with you on the playground. I love seeing that.”
  • On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is not feeling particularly happy, let them know that it is ok to not feel happy sometimes, and that they are likely to feel happy again sometime soon. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s ear, “We thought this would be fun, but it is ok if you don’t like it.”
  • Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when they are doing something that brings them joy. You can offer reflections like:
    • “You were the first person to sit at the dinner table tonight, and you smiled a lot while we all talked together. It seemed like our family dinnertime made you feel very happy.”
    • “I remember last time we were at the park you did not like being on the swings. This time, you went on the swings with your friend, and it looked like you were having fun.”

Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation

No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.

If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem, confidence, and joy. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.

You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior that you want to see more. For example,“You included everyone in the game you were playing. That’s great!”

Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you share your toys, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “I see you shared your special truck with your friend. Love seeing that!”


  • Recognize and call out when it is going well. “I noticed you were really enjoying yourself when you were coloring that picture.”
  • Build celebrations into your routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.


Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.


[1] Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. Penguin.
[2] Pathways.org Developmental Milestones. Retrieved on November 25, 2019 at https://pathways.org.
Recommended Citation: Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2020). Happiness. Ages 3-4. Retrieved from https://parentingmontana.org.
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