Resilience 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 growing resilience provides a perfect opportunity.

Resilience is the ability to overcome challenges and adversities. You can often see resilience when people are able to thrive despite having many challenges to overcome. Having a loving and consistent relationship with a trusted adult grows resilience in children.1 Other ways to build children’s strength to handle challenges is to help them identify their strengths and to form a strong sense of identity including pride in their cultural or racial heritage.

No matter how many positive supports a child has in their life, however, too much adversity can have long-term negative effects on development. Reducing serious adversities from children’s lives is the best way to keep them healthy.2

Throughout the early years, children are facing developmentally appropriate challenges and learning whether or not an adult can be trusted to be there for them when needed. For example, when a three-to-four-year-old is thinking, “Is this ok to try? Are you still here with me?” seeing that one of their important adults is there — paying attention and assuring them that everything is ok — gives the child a sense that it is ok to approach a challenge.

Three-to-four-year-olds will be able to handle some challenges on their own, such as another child taking their toy. Others will feel challenged and may look to a parent or another caregiver to help them to speak up for themselves and say, “I was using that.” Although the circumstances change as the child grows up, the need to know that a trusted adult is there for them will promote resilience at all ages.

We all face challenges to being resilient. As your child is developing, it is important that they can turn to you to figure out when a challenge is the right size for them and how to overcome feeling scared, hurt, or excluded. Resilience means being willing to face a right-sized challenge even if a challenging experience in the past was difficult to overcome.

The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you to grow resilience and build a relationship with your child that includes reliable and unconditional support and love.

Why Resilience?

Your child’s openness to engage in manageable challenges and recover from difficult experiences are essential to developing lifelong resilience. You can begin by exposing your child to challenges that are just the right size for them, offer just enough support for them to know they can trust you, and help them recognize and feel a sense of success and empowerment when they master the experience.

Today, in the short term, resilience can create

  • opportunities for your child to have new experiences;
  • a sense of confidence that your child can manage a certain level of difficulty; and
  • a strong connection between the two of you as you navigate these challenges together and triumph in successes.

Tomorrow, in the long term, helping your child develop resilience

  • develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
  • provides a firm foundation for exploration, learning, and speaking up;
  • prepares your child for handling inevitable unexpected challenges in life;
  • 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 Resilience Download a summary of the 5 steps

This five-step process helps you and your child grow resilience together. It also builds important critical 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

Three-to-four-year-olds may use sentences limited to five to six words and will still cry as a central form of communicating with you. Paying close attention to your child’s facial expressions, body movements, and sounds helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your child build trust and create empathetic interactions that let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking.

Understanding what your child is thinking and feeling will make a big difference for setting the stage for resilience. Your child will give you lots of cues about whether a challenge feels too big or too small for them. Every child is different, and your own child may change from day-to-day in how willing they are to take on challenges and to be resilient when those experiences become difficult.

You are the person that will know your child’s cues better than anyone else, and you will be able to anticipate if talking to someone new, trying a new food, having a new childcare provider, or another experience is right for today. Is your child feeling particularly tired? Did they just get hurt or are they hungry? Knowing how they are doing and what their facial expressions and body language mean will help you decide if a challenge is the right size for your child, right now.

In paying attention and noting small differences in your child’s verbal and non-verbal language, you

  • show them that they can trust you to notice how they feel;
  • let them know that you will help them to face challenges;
  • will help them to advocate for themselves if something feels like too much for right now or if they need more support;
  • tell them that they can trust you to help them gain a sense of what experiences are right for risk-taking and which ones are not; and
  • deepen your ability to communicate with one another.


  • Help your child notice and name their own cues so they can develop self-awareness and learn to trust their own feelings. This includes describing and naming the pride they may feel when they have gotten through a challenging situation. Pointing out the resilience that they demonstrate will help them notice it and know it is there when the next challenge arises.
  • 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 facing a challenging situation – such as the first day in a new child care room – 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: “That little girl just ran over to the block area with a big smile on her face. Her running and her smile make me think she is excited to check out the blocks in this new room. Do you think that she is excited?”
    • You can also point out how your child seems to feel at the end of the day and how that seems different than what you noticed at the beginning of the day. “It seems like you are happy that you met some new friends and had fun playing. This is different from how you looked this morning when you were pretty uncertain about entering the room. I think you were able to get over your uncertainty and have fun today. Is that true?”
  • When reading books, look at the images of people and ask your child what they notice about the people that shows them being resilient. Ask, “How do you think that character is feeling? Did they get through that big challenge?”
  • If your child is feeling unsure about how to describe all of the emotions that occur when trying to be resilient or how others are feeling, consider asking questions, naming what you notice, and leaving plenty of quiet space after your questions so they have an opportunity to share their ideas too.
    • “How did you feel when you first saw the new classroom? I noticed some children were very excited about the toys.”
    • “I noticed other children took more time to look around and get comfortable. Was there anything that made you feel nervous.”
    • “I am feeling happy to see you. How do you feel right now?”
    • “How do you think you will feel when we come back tomorrow?”
    • “Is there anything we can do to remember how resilient you were today?”

Grow your own resilience by creating a plan for calming down. Research shows that children cry less when their caregiver is less stressed. Secure your child’s safety, then close your eyes, and breathe deeply. Crying creates stress in adults so be sure and take breaks when you need them.

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 your child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build your child’s resilience. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through.3

  • 3-4-year-olds are copying or mimicking adult words and actions.
  • 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
  • 3-4-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences but do not yet have a feelings vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes longer to develop.
  • 3-4-year-olds are eager to engage in pretend play by themselves and cooperatively with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
  • 3-4-year-olds can create exclusivity by focusing on one person and ignoring others. With the help of adults, they can learn to be more inclusive.
  • 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.

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 and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.


  • Use your tone of voice and facial expression to help your child celebrate when they have gotten through a change such as a new child care arrangement, sleeping in a new place, trying a new food, and so on.
  • Read and “pretend play” together.
    • During reading time, select a book of faces to help your child learn to identify the different feelings of other children. Point out what you notice and how you can tell what each child is feeling. Do the children’s feelings change based on experiences they are having in the book? Be sure to point out moments when children successfully overcome difficulties.
    • After reading a story together, act out what feelings look like together. “First she looked sad (make a sad face) and then she got help and looked happier (make a happy face).”
  • Share your thoughts and feelings. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what signs you are giving even when it’s not comfortable. “I did not expect we would get home so late. I don’t know how we are going to be able to clean up before our friends arrive. This mess is making me feel very worried. Maybe I will start to feel better after we get the toys picked up. Can you help too? I am sure we can handle this if we work together.”
  • Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “It made me feel so much better to tell you how I was feeling and to ask for help.”
  • Grow optimism. In addition to growing these essential skills that foster resilience, there are beliefs and attitudes that you can promote. For example, when your child uses definitive language like, “I will never be able to do this,” you can respond,
    • “Some things can feel really hard but then it is possible to get through them after all.”
    • “Do you remember last time when this seemed hard? You took a deep breath, and were able to do it.”
    • “I wonder if we can do something that will help us get through this challenge.”

Don’t tell your child what they feel; ask instead. Three-to-four-year-olds are striving for independence and may create a power struggle if you are too direct about their thoughts and feelings. You might say, “You look angry. Is that right?”

Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Grow Resilience, 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 improve over time as you give them the chance with support. 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.

To build resilience, it is important to practice noticing feelings, engaging in just-right-sized challenges, noticing the trusted adults that are always there to help, and remembering the child’s strengths and pride in their own culture that can help them get through challenging situations.


  • Learn about your child’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones offers you guidance on appropriate challenges.
  • 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. If they have already mastered a game, is there another game that is slightly more challenging that you can play?
  • Provide books, dolls, and other materials at home that give children a chance to see people who face challenges and do not necessarily get through them the first time around. Do you tell stories of someone who was not able to succeed at first, but kept trying? Describe how that person is building resilience to get through hard times.
  • Use your child’s dolls or stuffed animals to act out moments of resilience-building. This is a good way to practice facing really big challenges that the child might be experiencing or about to experience, such as a move, a new baby in the family, or a major medical situation. You can name the feelings that the doll might feel and come up with some strategies to help the doll feel stronger to face the challenge. Should the doll take a breath and ask for help? Should the doll bring something that will make them feel better? Does the doll have special skills that can help them in this moment?

Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success

At this point, you’ve shown your child that you can be trusted to be there when they need you. Your child is learning to notice when they feel worry, fear, or stress when encountering new situations. Together, you brainstorm ways to get through a challenge and recognize the pride and success of feeling resilient.

Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. This support tells the child that you see the challenge they are facing, and you are here to talk about it and support them. Even if it is something that is very hard to talk about, such as the death of a family member, a friend moving away, or a loved one that is sick, it is important for children to know that their trusted adult is there to talk to them and help them figure out how to handle it. Parents 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 were nervous about going to the new center, but you got through it and had a good time afterall. I love seeing that.”
  • On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is scared of new people or situations, offer confidence in your child’s ability to face the new. In a gentle, non-public way, you can say, “Remember how last time it seemed like it would be hard, but you tried it and it turned out to be fun? I thought you might like this challenge too.”
  • Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can offer reflections like:
    • “You seem worried about playing with the new kids in your class.” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your child gain a sense of security and face them rather than backing away.
    • You can also offer comfort items to help your child face new challenges. “Would your bear help you feel better?” Bring a comfort item with you as you face new challenges.

Don’t move on quickly if your child shows interest in a new person. Children often need more time to adjust to new individuals. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to warm up to the new person. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to gain relationship skills over time.

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 resilience. 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 you want to see more of. For example, “It took a little time to find new friends at your center, but you kept trying and found some — love seeing that!”

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 play with the new children, you get to pick out a toy at the store” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You let the new children play with you. I really appreciate that!”


  • Recognize and call out when it is going well. “I notice you have gotten more comfortable coming to grandma’s house and staying in the guest room all by yourself!”
  • Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like completing a routine perfectly – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them. “You told me you were scared, and we came up with some ideas. I like seeing that!”
  • Notice when your child tries something new or recovers smoothly from a challenging situation. These conversations might start happening naturally during your bedtime routine or when snuggling up to read stories together.
  • Build celebrations into your everyday 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 practice responsible decision making.


[1] Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. Resilience. Retrieved on February 20, 2020 at
[2] Beardslee, W.R., Avery, M.W., Ayoub, C.C., Watts, C.L. & Lester, P. (September, 2010). Building resilience: The power to cope with adversity. Zero to Three. Retrieved on March 25, 2020 at
[3] Developmental Milestones. Retrieved on November 25, 2019 at
Recommended Citation: Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2020). Resilience. Ages 3-4. Retrieved from
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