Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Ages & Stages

Social Development in Preschoolers

During your child's preschool-age years, they'll discover a lot about themselves and interacting with people around them.

​Once they reach age three,  your child will be much less selfish than they were before. They'll also be less dependent on you, a sign that their own sense of identity is stronger and more secure. Now they'll actually play with other children, interacting instead of just playing side by side. In the process, they'll recognize that not everyone thinks exactly as they do and that each of their playmates has many unique qualities, some attractive and some not. You'll also find your child drifting toward certain kids and starting to develop friendships with them. As they create these friendships, children discover that they, too, each have special qualities that make them likable—a revelation that gives a vital boost to self-esteem.

There's some more good news about your child's development at this age: As they become more aware of and sensitive to the feelings and actions of others, they'll gradually stop competing and will learn to cooperate when playing with her friends. They take turns and share toys in small groups, though sometimes they won't. But instead of grabbing, whining, or screaming for something, they'll actually ask politely much of the time. You can look forward to less aggressive behavior and calmer play sessions. Three-year-olds are able to work out solutions to disputes by taking turns or trading toys.

Learning how to cooperate

However, particularly in the beginning, you'll need to encourage this cooperation. For instance, you might suggest that they "use their words" to deal with problems instead of acting out. Also, remind them that when two children are sharing a toy, each gets an equal turn. Suggest ways to reach a simple solution when your child and another child want the same toy, such as drawing for the first turn or finding another toy or activity. This doesn't work all the time, but it's worth a try. Also, help children with the appropriate words to describe their feelings and desires so that they don't feel frustrated. Above all, show by your own example how to cope peacefully with conflicts. If you have an explosive temper, try to tone down your reactions in their presence. Otherwise, they'll mimic your behavior whenever they're under stress.

When anger or frustration gets physical

No matter what you do, however, there probably will be times when your child's anger or frustration becomes physical. When that happens, restrain them from hurting others, and if they don't calm down quickly, move them away from the other children. Talk to them about her feelings and try to determine why they're so upset. Let them know you understand and accept her feelings, but make it clear that physically attacking another child is not a good way to express these emotions.

Saying sorry

Help them see the situation from the other child's point of view by reminding them of a time when someone hit or screamed at them, and then suggest more peaceful ways to resolve their conflicts. Finally, once they understand what they've done wrong—but not before—ask them to apologize to the other child. However, simply saying "I'm sorry" may not help your child correct their behavior; they also needs to know why they're apologizing. They may not understand right away, but give it time; by age four these explanations will begin to mean something.

Make-believe play

Fortunately, the normal interests of three-year-olds keep fights to a minimum. They spend much of their playtime in fantasy activity, which tends to be more cooperative than play that's focused on toys or games. As you've probably already seen, preschooler enjoy assigning different roles in an elaborate game of make-believe using imaginary or household objects. This type of play helps develop important social skills, such as taking turns, paying attention, communicating (through actions and expressions as well as words), and responding to one another's actions. And there's still another benefit: Because pretend play allows children to slip into any role they wish—including superheroes or the fairy godmother—it also helps them explore more complex social ideas. Plus it helps improve executive functioning such as problem-solving

By watching the role-playing in your child's make-believe games, you may see that they're beginning to identify their own gender and gender identity. While playing house, boys naturally will adopt the father's role and girls the mother's, reflecting whatever they've noticed in the hemworld around them.

Development of gender roles & identity

Research shows that a few of the developmental and behavioral differences that typically distinguish boys from girls are biologically determined. Most gender-related characteristics at this age are more likely to be shaped by culture and family. Your daughter, for example, may be encouraged to play with dolls by advertisements, gifts from well-meaning relatives, and the approving comments of adults and other children. Boys, meanwhile, may be guided away from dolls in favor of more rough-and-tumble games and sports. Children sense the approval and disapproval and adjust their behavior accordingly. Thus, by the time they enter kindergarten, children's gender identities are often well established.

As children start to think in categories, they often understand the boundaries of these labels without understanding that boundaries can be flexible; children this age often will take this identification process to an extreme. Girls may insist on wearing dresses, nail polish, and makeup to school or to the playground. Boys may swagger, be overly assertive, and carry their favorite ball, bat, or truck everywhere. 

On the other hand, some girls and boys reject these stereotypical expressions of gender identity, preferring to choose toys, playmates, interests, mannerisms, and hairstyles that are more often associated with the opposite sex. These children are sometimes called gender expansive, gender variant, gender nonconforming, gender creative, or gender atypical. Among these gender expansive children are some who may come to feel that their deep inner sense of being female or male—their gender identity—is the opposite of their biologic sex, somewhere in between male and female, or another gender; these children are sometimes called transgender​

Given that many three-year-old children are doubling down on gender stereotypes, this can be an age in which a gender-expansive child stands out from the crowd. These children are normal and healthy, but it can be difficult for parents to navigate their child's expression and identity if it is different from their expectations or the expectations of those around them.

Experimenting with gender attitudes & behaviors

As children develop their own identity during these early years, they're bound to experiment with attitudes and behaviors of both sexes. There's rarely reason to discourage such impulses, except when the child is resisting or rejecting strongly established cultural standards. If your son wanted to wear dresses every day or your daughter only wants to wear sport shorts like her big brother, allow the phase to pass unless it is inappropriate for a specific event. If the child persists, however, or seems unusually upset about their gender, discuss the issue with your pediatrician.

Your child also may imitate certain types of behavior that adults consider sexual, such as flirting. Children this age have no mature sexual intentions, though; they mimic these mannerisms. If the imitation of sexual behavior is explicit, though, they may have been personally exposed to sexual acts. You should discuss this with your pediatrician, as it could be a sign of sexual abuse or the influence of inappropriate media or videogames.

Play sessions: helping your child make friends

By age four, your child should have an active social life filled with friends, and they may even have a "best friend." Ideally, they'll have neighborhood and preschool friends they see routinely. But what if your child is not enrolled in preschool and doesn't live near other children the same age? In these cases, you might arrange play sessions with other preschoolers. Parks, playgrounds, and preschool activity programs all provide excellent opportunities to meet other children.

Once your preschooler has found playmates they seems to enjoy, you need to take initiative to help build their relationships. Encourage them to invite these friends to your home. It's important for your child to "show off" their home, family, and possessions to other children. This will establish a sense of self-pride. Incidentally, to generate this pride, their home needn't be luxurious or filled with expensive toys; it needs only be warm and welcoming.

It's also important to recognize that at this age your child's friends are not just playmates. They also actively influence their thinking and behavior. They'll desperately want to be just like them, even when they break rules and standards you've taught them rrm birth. They now realize there are other values and opinions besides yours, and they may test this new discovery by demanding things you've never allowed him—certain toys, foods, clothing, or permission to watch certain TV programs.

Testing limits

Don't despair if your child's relationship with you changes dramatically in light of these new friendships. They may be rude to you for the first time in their life.Hard as it may be to accept, this sassiness actually is a positive sign that they're learning to challenge authority and test their independence. Once again, deal with it by expressing disapproval, and possibly discussing with them what they really mean or feel. If you react emotionally, you'll encourage continued bad behavior. If the subdued approach doesn't work and they persist in talking back to you, a time-out (or time-in) is the most effective form of punishment.

Bear in mind that even though your child is exploring the concepts of good and bad, they still have an extremely simplified sense of morality. When they obey rules rigidly, it's not necessarily because they understand them, but more likely because they wants to avoid punishment. In their mind, consequences count but not intentions. When theybreaks something of value, they'll probably assume they are bad, even if they didn't brea it on purpose. They need to be taught the difference between accidents and misbehaving.

Separate the child from their behavior

To help them learn this difference, you need to separate them from their behavior. When they do or say something that calls for punishment, make sure they understand they are being punished for the act not because they're "bad." Describe specifically what they did wrong, clearly separating person from behavior. If they are picking on a younger sibling, explain why it is wrong rather than saying "You're bad." When they do something wrong without meaning to, comfort them and say you understand it was unintentional. Try not to get upset, or they'll think you're angry at them rather than about what they did.

It's also important to give your preschooler tasks that you know they can do and then praise them when they do them well. They are ready for simple responsibilities, such as setting the table or cleaning their room. On family outings, explain that you expect them to behave well, and congratulate them when they do. Along with responsibilities, give them ample opportunities to play with other children, and tell him how proud you are when they shares or is helpful to another child.

Sibling relationships

Finally, it's important to recognize that the relationship with older siblings can be particularly challenging, especially if the sibling is three to four years older. Often your four-year-old is eager to do everything their older sibling is doing; just as often, your older child resents the intrusion. They may resent the intrusion on their space, their friends, their more daring and busy pace, and especially their room and things. You often become the mediator of these squabbles. It's important to seek middle ground. Allow your older child their own time, independence, and private activities and space; but also foster cooperative play appropriate. Family vacations are great opportunities to enhance the positives of their relationship and at the same time give each their own activity and special time.

Last Updated
Adapted from Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 7th Edition (Copyright © 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
Follow Us