Third Grade Emotional Development

Along with the astonishing physical growth, the impressive new mental abilities and the heightened focus on friendships, third grade brings new emotional milestones for children. Some are welcome elements to the life of parents; some will drive you up the wall. The important thing is to know what's coming and how to react. Read this slideshow to learn what to expect from your child in this interesting, challenging, wonderful year.

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They are dramatic.

The emotions of a third grader can be all over the place. One minute, they’re being affectionate and cooperative with friends, and the next, they’re bossy and demanding. They exaggerate and say things like “Times tables is the hardest thing ever!” or “I hate all the kids in my class!”

What you should do: Be patient and supportive. Expect unexpected complaining and whining. Set limits that allow for some negative emotions while teaching your child self-control.

They want more responsibility and independence.

In third grade, kids begin to realize they don’t need their parents for every simple task. Add this to new intellectual skills, and suddenly they want to do it all.

What you should do: Give your child plenty of chances to show how responsible and independent he can be. Ask him to make his own bed, clean his own room or do his own laundry. Assign household chores like doing dishes, taking out the trash and mopping the floor, and compliment your child on jobs well done.

They criticize themselves harshly.

Third graders often overestimate their abilities, and they are easily discouraged when things don't go well. Comments like “I can’t do anything right” can be common. The pressure to be accepted by peers leads to strong emotional stress when children struggle academically and athletically.

What you should do: Make sure you are giving your child chances to accomplish things on his own without your help, which builds self-confidence in the long run. Provide challenges that aren’t too hard, such as household chores. Remind your child of things he’s learned to do; children can genuinely forget recent accomplishments because they quickly move to the next thing. Focus more on the learning process of challenges and less on the end product. If you think your child is falling behind, you can consult with teachers, counselors or your pediatrician.

They criticize others harshly, including adults.

Third graders might not be quite as mean-spirited as they were in second grade, but they compensate with a newfound ability to notice the imperfections of others, including their teachers and parents. As they form exclusive social groups, they decide which peers don’t belong, which is a form of criticism in itself.

What you should do: Be ready. You might be in for an angry tirade at some point in your child’s third grade year. Realize that the forming of opinions is a normal developmental milestone in your child’s life, but the way it plays out can be hurtful.

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They recognize their own strengths and weaknesses.

With a heightened focus on academic, athletic and social skills, children in third grade start to see where their skills rank among their peers. They talk about who is the smartest, who is the funniest, who is the most popular and who is the best athlete.

What you should do: Remind your child that a person’s worth isn’t tied to any one facet of their life, and look for opportunities to build confidence. If your child is struggling academically, calmly tell him where he should improve without putting too much pressure on him.

They have conquered unreasonable fears.

Third graders have an improved sense of reality.  Many of their old fears have passed, but this also means their new fears are more reality-based. A child this age may be afraid of failing in school or being judged by his peers.

What you should do: Don’t tease your child about past fears. Focus on helping him through his more mature, more realistic fears.

They have more secrets.

A lot of factors in a third grader’s life lead to secrets. They are getting better at watching what they say and deciding when not to speak. They have active social lives in which they care deeply what others think of them but are afraid to be judged. They are withdrawing from adults, who they may have told secrets to previously. It’s no coincidence that this is a time when children end up holding certain information to themselves.

What you should do: Buy your child a diary and/or a box that he can lock. Not only does this give him an outlet to express his thoughts, but a locked box is a small symbol of responsibility that he’ll appreciate.

They may experience guilt or shame.

Consider all the emotional and intellectual development happening for a third grader. It can be a stressful time. Some kids use their new ability to think deeper and their overly negative opinions against themselves in a strong, potentially damaging way. This can be hard for others to detect because third graders are better at hiding their feelings than ever before.

What you should do: Be on the lookout for the difference between temporary emotional flare-ups—anger, frustration and sadness—and a deeper sense of guilt or shame. Talk with your child about his expectations for himself, and help him find a reasonable balance. Encourage him to forgive himself. Talk about how to act in the future, not about what happened in the past.

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