Any parent of a toddler knows it isn’t easy to teach them social skills. That’s because even though toddlers want to have happy, friendly, interactions with others—their own fears and desires get in the way.
They can’t help wondering—Will that child grab their toy? Can they get the truck before the other child? If they push the other kid off the trike and speed off, will they get away with it?
So the first step in helping toddlers develop social intelligence is helping them learn to manage their emotions, which is the foundation of interpersonal relationships. The second is helping them develop empathy for others. The third is helping them learn to express their needs and feelings without attacking.
This skill set will be more critical to your child’s happiness in life than academic success, financial success, or any of our other conventional measures. In fact, emotional intelligence—defined as the ability to manage one’s own emotions and relate well with others—will be a crucial factor throughout your child’s life in his or her eventual academic and career success, probably more important than IQ.
So how do you help your toddler learn social skills?
1. Empathize, empathize, empathize.
Kids who receive a lot of empathy for their own feelings from the adults in their lives are the earliest to develop empathy for others, and research has shown that empathy for others is the cornerstone of successful interpersonal relationships.
2. Stay close during playgroups.
Many kids hit during social interactions because they get overwhelmed and they just don’t know what else to do. If you’re there, you can say, “Yes, Ryan took your bucket....is that okay with you? No? You can say ‘My Bucket!’” If your child knows you’re there for backup, hitting won’t become a habit.
3. Don’t force toddlers to share.
It actually delays the development of sharing skills! Kids need to feel secure in their ownership before they can share. Instead, introduce the concept of taking turns.
“It’s Sophia’s turn to use the bucket. Then it will be your turn. I’ll help you wait.”
4. Let the child decide how long his turn lasts.
If kids think adults will snatch a toy away once the adult’s random idea of “long enough” has passed, you’re modeling grabbing, and the child usually becomes more possessive. If the child is free to use the toy for as long as he wants, he can fully enjoy it and then give it up with an open heart. If the same child uses the same toy every single time, you can either buy a duplicate toy since it’s such a crowd-pleaser, or alternate turns visit by visit.
5. Help your child wait.
If your child has a meltdown waiting for her turn, it’s an indicator that she’s got some big feelings to let out and is using this handy opportunity. Kids often get rigid about possession in an attempt to shore up their fragile equilibrium—just like adults!
Empathize: “It’s hard to wait...You wish you could use the bucket now...” and hold her while she cries. You’ll be amazed to see that after “showing” you those pent-up emotions, she probably won’t even care about the toy she was crying for, and will happily move on.
6. Intervene with compulsive grabbing.
Sometimes when kids grab, the other child doesn’t even care. So don’t rush to intervene. Instead, observe. Maybe they’re playing a game. Most of the time, you don’t need to interfere unless one of the children is unhappy.
However, if one child is grabbing constantly, then you probably do need to intervene. Often kids will grab anything the other child has, then drop the toy and go on to the next one, to stave off their own unhappy feelings. They need help with those feelings.
So summon up all your compassion, put your hand on the disputed toy and say “You want the truck?” Then look at the child using the truck. “Is that okay with you?” If it is—great. You don’t have to be the arbiter of fairness.
If not, say “Cole’s still using the truck...Cole, will you give the truck to Trevon when you’re done? Great, thanks! Trevon, let’s find something else to do...Do you want to use the snowplow to make a road for the truck?” He may well fall apart—especially if he was grabbing to hold himself together. Nurture him through the meltdown. Afterwards, he’ll feel so much better, he won’t need to grab.
7. Teach assertiveness.
If your child often lets other kids take things from him and then seems unhappy, say, “You aren’t ready to give that up, are you? You can say ‘I’m still playing with this.’”
Practice acting this out at home with him, and demonstrate it with teddy bears. Until he develops the language skills, you’ll need to be his “voice” when he plays with others.
8. Instead of praising sharing in the abstract, help her discover what’s great about it.
Research shows that when we praise sharing kids do it more—but only when we’re watching! When we aren’t, they actually do it less, because our praise doesn’t give them any reason to share except that moment of attention from us. Instead, empower her to make the choice to share in the future by helping her see the effect of her choice: “Look how happy Michael is that he gets a turn with your train.”
When you adopt the policy of letting kids have a turn for as long as they want, they happily give the coveted item to the other child at the end of their turn. They get to experience how wonderful it feels to give. So letting kids control their turns is the best way to promote sharing and generosity.
9. Before friends come over, toddlers should have a chance to put away their most special toys
...if they don’t want anyone else to play with them. Use this ritual as an opportunity to explain that the visiting child will of course expect to play with Junior’s other toys, just as Junior plays with his friends’ toys at their houses.
10. Set clear limits on physical aggression.
“You can tell us and show us how mad you are without hurting. Come, let’s tell Henry how mad you are and I’ll help you.”
“You can yell NO and you can stomp your foot as hard as you want. You can yell ‘MOM!’ and I will always help.”
Kids are entitled to their feelings, which have a way of just showing up in human beings, like our arms and legs. But all humans, even little ones, are responsible for what they do with their arms and legs and feelings. Our job as parents is to teach them healthy self-management techniques without being punitive, which always makes kids more physically aggressive.
11. It’s never too early to give children language for their feelings.
Labeling emotion is the first step in the brain’s ability to process it verbally instead of physically.
“That big dog’s bark is scary, but you’re safe on this side of the fence and I would never let it hurt you. You don’t need to be afraid.”
“It’s so frustrating when you work hard on your tower and it collapses like that. No wonder you’re angry.”
The exception to this is when children are in the throes of big emotion, when too many words can take them out of their heart and into their heads. At those times, just reassure your child he’s safe, and save the words for later.
12. Remember that underneath anger is usually hurt or fear.
Acknowledging those feelings is always more effective to diffuse anger than simply labeling the anger, which just seems to reinforce it. “I hear you’re very angry at Jimmy. I wonder if you’re hurt that he wants to play with someone else right now.”
This is even more important when kids say “I hate him!,” because hate is not a feeling; it’s a stance.
“You feel so angry at your brother right now that you feel like you never want to work things out with him. That’s what the word hate means. Sometimes when we are very, very angry, we feel that way, even toward people we love. We are a family and we will always work things out. Let's go tell your brother how hurt you are that he pushed you off the swing, and how angry that makes you feel.”
13. Begin introducing the concept of noticing how other people feel as early as you can.
“Look at William. He’s crying. I think you hurt his feelings.”
“That little girl is sure mad. I wonder why?”
“Imani hurt herself. I wonder if we can do anything to help her feel better?”
14. Stay calm.
Research shows that one of the most important things parents can do to help kids learn to manage their emotions is to stay calm themselves. Kids need to experience their parents as a “holding environment”—a safe harbor in the storm of their turbulent feelings. If you can stay calm yourself, and soothe your child, she will eventually learn to sooth herself, which is the first step in learning to manage her feelings.
15. Remember they’re kids.
Just because James bites a playmate doesn’t mean he’ll be an axe-murderer. It’s important not to permit bad behavior toward others, but that doesn’t mean you don’t offer understanding—and the confidence that your child will learn. “All kids get mad at their friends sometimes. It will be easier, as you get older, to remember how to control yourself when you get mad, so you can work things out.” Kids need to hear from you that they aren’t bad people.