How do you respond to a 3-year-old who tells you he is "sad?" My son is fun, happy, active, enjoys school, etc. Lately he tells me that he is sad when I have to leave. I am not sure he and I have the same definition of sad, but I'm concerned that he has been talking about it more lately. Is this a transition issue, and a realization that life isn't always fair or great, or something else? Thanks
From: Linus, Brookline
On his own, a 3-year-old would not be able to label and identify "sad." Does he go to daycare, or spend time with a babysitter? I'm guessing that when you leave, he is feeling, well, sad, and that the adult he is with has done exactly what she is supposed to do, which is label and identify his feelings, as in, "You're feeling a little sad, aren't you, that mommy has left?" If that's the scenario, then his definition is likely the same as any adult's: "It doesn't feel good when you go!"
So take this at face value and don't read any more into it than that. He may be using the word more often because, as his verbal skills get better and better, he may be expressing himself more often. Or it could be something much simpler: he likes the sound of the word, or he likes the attention he gets when he uses the word. (If this has come on suddenly, another possibility is that he's mimicking some other child who has had this exchange with a provider, so be sure to check with his caregiver.)
Meanwhile, of course, help him to deal with his separation from you. There are lots of strategies for easing the sadness -- readers, can you help out here? -- but most importantly, never leave without saying goodbye, and create some kind of ritual for parting (he waves to you out the window). Also tell him you miss him during the day, too, and that you look at his picture and it makes you feel better. Would he like your picture so he can look at that, too? That normalizes his feelings and also helps him develop coping mechanisms.
Since you mention he says this most often when you leave, I'm ignoring all the other possibilities for where he may have learned, "sad," but you might want to explore them, too. For instance, from a grandparent who is "sad" when he leaves. Lastly, new research says it is possible for a young child to be depressed, but from your description, that doesn't sound at all like what's going on here.
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