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3 to 4: I Love You! I Hate You!

Threes and fours express feelings through powerful (and sometimes shocking) words.

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Social Skills

Three-year-old Mia gives her mom a big hug and declares enthusiastically, “I love you, Mommy!” Full of smiles, she adds, “And I love the way your hair smells!” As preschoolers develop their social skills, they begin to form intense, warm relationships, but they’re also still experimenting with emotions and the power of words. Sometimes “I love you” can rapidly change to “I hate you,” with what seems like little reason to an adult.



Threes enjoy exploring relationships with the special people in their lives, like Mommy, Daddy, or their teachers. They often eagerly profess how much they love these important people, and they delight in personalizing their love by commenting glowingly on their unique skills, appearance, or sensory attributes, as Mia did.

But threes and fours are still a bit headstrong and egocentric in their thinking, and they’re just beginning to experiment with the power of words and feelings. When things don’t go your child’s way, for example, he may shout, “I hate you!” or act out his feelings with a stuffed animal or doll if he thinks he might be punished for speaking to a person that way.

Around age 4, children begin to toss around phrases like “I hate that; it’s so ugly,” if they see a hairstyle or toy they don’t like. They may also use such phrases on purpose, if they know it bothers their parents, in order to exercise their independence.

Preschoolers’ emotions can seem like a roller-coaster ride as they love someone a great deal one moment, then hate them intensely the next. It’s important to remember that kids this young don’t yet understand the power or true meaning of words like “hate,” so you shouldn’t take what they say to heart. It’s basically just a kid’s way of saying “no.” Explain to your child that these words and phrases can hurt feelings and that they’re unnecessary; this situation is a good opportunity to teach your child about evaluating and communicating his thoughts and feelings.

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