What does "sad" mean to a 3-year-old?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 15, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hi,
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

Hi Linus,

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.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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5 comments so far...
  1. My 2.5 y/o labels her feelings very adequately and accurately. She'll tell me when something has made her mad, when she is sad, and when she is happy. She's also rather empathic. If she knows that she's upset one of us, she'll ask, "Are you happy?" We answer her honestly if we're not, but taking care to note that we still love her.

    Often times, this will elicit an apology from her.

    She's learned to label these feelings and behaviors from many sources, as we all do. It's nothing unusual from what I can see.

    Posted by phe February 15, 11 09:18 AM
  1. I agree - I think it is your son verbalizing his feelings - this is a good thing! For my almost 3yo sad can mean a variety of things, but mostly that she's unhappy - could be that I left or that she didn't get a treat! We've tried to give her a finite number of words to use to describe her emotions and have had similar results as phe above.

    Posted by canukgrl February 15, 11 10:41 AM
  1. My 20 month old twins know that when their sibling is crying, it means he/she is sad. The not-sad one will say "[sibling's name] crying. sad." They also say "Happy happy happy" (uncoached) when they're having a good time. I agree that you can't read too much into these things, but they do start figuring their emotions out pretty early and if you label their emotions for them, they will be able to express them and/or correctly recognize those emotions in others pretty early on.

    Posted by twinmom February 15, 11 11:17 AM
  1. I agree with the other comments that your son is probably just labeling his feelings, which is a good thing, but don't read it to mean that he is sad all the time. My 2 year old daughter can go from crying, wailing that she is sad/mad to saying she is happy (through the still flowing tears) if I comfort her and fix whatever caused the sadness - often something as simple as a small stumble or a toy out of reach, or the dog licked her.
    Give your son a few more words to express his emotions, like mad, happy, scared, etc. and it might make it easier to figure out exactly why he says he's sad.

    Posted by Amy-Lynn February 15, 11 11:49 AM
  1. hi, my sister had to travel on business trip for two weeks and her 2,5 year old sun had to stay with his father who used to see him once every 2 weeks. Since his father took him and the boy has fever and the doctor said he has a kind of bronchite but when i saw him i saw him really sad and unusual he was very weird and the way he looked at me was so strange, i have never seen him like this and he's been living with me since 1,5 year (when his father left, my sister and her son moved in with me and my parents). his father is refusing to give him to us, and we're really scared. can someone please advice

    Posted by chris December 2, 11 03:17 AM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. My 2.5 y/o labels her feelings very adequately and accurately. She'll tell me when something has made her mad, when she is sad, and when she is happy. She's also rather empathic. If she knows that she's upset one of us, she'll ask, "Are you happy?" We answer her honestly if we're not, but taking care to note that we still love her.

    Often times, this will elicit an apology from her.

    She's learned to label these feelings and behaviors from many sources, as we all do. It's nothing unusual from what I can see.

    Posted by phe February 15, 11 09:18 AM
  1. I agree - I think it is your son verbalizing his feelings - this is a good thing! For my almost 3yo sad can mean a variety of things, but mostly that she's unhappy - could be that I left or that she didn't get a treat! We've tried to give her a finite number of words to use to describe her emotions and have had similar results as phe above.

    Posted by canukgrl February 15, 11 10:41 AM
  1. My 20 month old twins know that when their sibling is crying, it means he/she is sad. The not-sad one will say "[sibling's name] crying. sad." They also say "Happy happy happy" (uncoached) when they're having a good time. I agree that you can't read too much into these things, but they do start figuring their emotions out pretty early and if you label their emotions for them, they will be able to express them and/or correctly recognize those emotions in others pretty early on.

    Posted by twinmom February 15, 11 11:17 AM
  1. I agree with the other comments that your son is probably just labeling his feelings, which is a good thing, but don't read it to mean that he is sad all the time. My 2 year old daughter can go from crying, wailing that she is sad/mad to saying she is happy (through the still flowing tears) if I comfort her and fix whatever caused the sadness - often something as simple as a small stumble or a toy out of reach, or the dog licked her.
    Give your son a few more words to express his emotions, like mad, happy, scared, etc. and it might make it easier to figure out exactly why he says he's sad.

    Posted by Amy-Lynn February 15, 11 11:49 AM
  1. hi, my sister had to travel on business trip for two weeks and her 2,5 year old sun had to stay with his father who used to see him once every 2 weeks. Since his father took him and the boy has fever and the doctor said he has a kind of bronchite but when i saw him i saw him really sad and unusual he was very weird and the way he looked at me was so strange, i have never seen him like this and he's been living with me since 1,5 year (when his father left, my sister and her son moved in with me and my parents). his father is refusing to give him to us, and we're really scared. can someone please advice

    Posted by chris December 2, 11 03:17 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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