Several milestones in your child’s life seem to come naturally from sitting up to saying his or her first words. These natural progressions are a part of transitioning to toddlerhood. Other skills, such as making new friends—which requires advanced social skills like sharing, taking turns, and controlling one’s emotions—may require time and assistance from you.
Until roughly age 2, most children engage in parallel play, where they may sit alongside others but do not typically interact with other children. Also, very young children can become overwhelmed with too many other children surrounding them. These factors are important to take into account when teaching your child to make friends.
1. Schedule (short) play dates. One-on-one play dates with a child roughly your own child’s age can help in the friend-making process without becoming overwhelming. If this is not possible, try not to have more than four children at a play date. While timing may depend upon your and the other parents’ schedules, try to schedule a short, one- to two-hour time when your child is not likely to be grumpy due to hunger or sleepiness.
2. Observe, model, and allow your toddler space. While you may read horror stories of over-involved parents, toddlerhood is all about finding a balance. Your toddler is learning how to interact with others and would benefit greatly from watching how you play. However, this does not mean that you must dictate each and every move or ask your child to show his/her friend the new toy. Sitting by the play area allows the space for your toddler to learn from experience. It also demonstrates that you are there to support and share with them these moments. Try to involve yourself in the play if you see it becoming difficult for your toddler to interact in a positive manner or if an argument is beginning to ensue that is beyond what your toddler is capable of dealing with at the moment. These situations are teachable moments that are crucial for their social and emotional development.
3. Be prepared for a few squabbles. Toddlers are not accustomed to sharing because they’ve largely been playing on their own until now. While you can make extra toys available, be prepared that your child may be upset when another child takes his or her special toy to play with. You can use this as a teaching moment by emphasizing sharing and giving each child a few minutes with the prized toy. Because toddlers do gain security from their possessions, you may want to leave your little one’s absolutely favorite toys at home.
4. Use emotional cues. Your toddler is starting to notice and develop a greater understanding of the world around him or her. You can serve as a guide by helping your child recognize emotions in new friends. For example, if your toddler uses a new friend’s toy and that friend becomes upset, you can say, “Jake is upset because you are playing with his toy, but you didn’t ask if you could play with it.” You could then encourage your child to interact more with Jake before taking a toy. Another approach is to encourage the positive behaviors you do see. For example, when you see the children playing together nicely you could say, “Jake really likes to play cars with you.” This encourages your child to continue engaging in positive examples of play.
Reviewed by Eva Benmeleh, March 2020
- Toddlers will typically engage in parallel play until the age of 2 when they may start noticing and interacting more with other children.
- Scheduling play dates with new friends in groups of two to four can help to expand friendships.
- Parents can supervise and help to guide play while teaching a toddler to recognize the importance of sharing and getting along.
My 3 year old tries to please everyone. I’m afraid his feelings will be hurt by other children who don’t want to be friends.
I’ve found going to areas where other kids are (like parks) is the best way to get my son to interact with other children – it’s on neutral ground (no favorite toys over which to squabble!) and to be honest he prefers to watch and run around with kids slightly older than him. Though I’m not sure how much they love having a 3 yr old tag along!
My 3 year old loves to play with kids older than her as well! She loves going to visit her older cousins (they are 8 & 10)…I just have to be careful of the things they say around her. 😉
My almost three year is just starting to interact with other children and still struggles with sharing so the park is a great place to not have to worry about fighting over toys! When the park isn’t an option I will hide some favorite toys when friends come over so I don’t have to worry about fighting over the toys I know she won’t want to share.