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Helping your toddler make friends

Baby may be a few years away from picking out matching BFF necklaces with some of the other tots on the block, but they're definitely ready to start to get to know some of the other young children in their life a little better.

Watch and learn

One of the biggest parts of helping Baby navigate social situations for the next year or two – before they are ready to really take the reins on their own social life – is going to be keeping an eye on Baby and seeing what they need from you. For some bold little tykes, this may just mean making a note of which other toddlers they play with the most often on the playground and then making a point to approach those toddlers’ parents and set up playdates.

Other toddlers can have a bit more trouble getting started with getting to know other children, though, especially so early on in their social educations. These toddlers may watch other children with interest, but not know how to approach them, or may be more withdrawn. In these cases, you can help ease the way by playing with Baby while letting them grow comfortable around the other children. Before too long, they might reach out to a potential playmate on their own, or maybe they'll still need your help to open up your game to another child playing nearby.

It’s perfectly normal for children Baby’s age to still need a little helping hand when it comes to making friends – social skills are learned skills, after all, and who’s better for Baby to learn from than you? They're also probably going to come across some children who don’t want to accept their, or your, invitation to play, and that’s another lesson they can learn from you. Sometimes people are going to say no or they're just not going to click with the friends they want to make, and that’s fine, too.

The supervisory role

Baby is old enough to be interested in other children – to play near them, in reaction to them, and sometimes even in collaboration with them – but there’s a good chance that their social skills are still developing. Even once they're made a connection with another child, either on their own or with your help, they still may need the occasional helping hand for figuring out how to interact once they start playing – either during the game or after the fact.

  • The obvious: Toddlers aren’t great at sharing, but as they play together more they’ll start to understand that using toys in a collaborative way can be more fun for everyone. You can help Baby work on some of these ideas as they play – or just step in calmly when it looks like an early attempt at sharing or working together might start to get messy. There’s a balance that every parent needs to figure out for themselves here, between letting toddlers develop the social skills they need by trying new things – and not always succeeding – and teaching them about how to relate to others by coaching them through situations.
  • The equalizer: Unfortunately, these early social experiments can get a little tricky when everyone involved in them is still working on issues like aggression, sharing, and impulse control. Your first priority is Baby’s safety and the safety of the other child, but if neither toddler’s safety is at stake, it’s up to you (and maybe to Baby’s playmate’s parent) to decide whether it’s the kind of situation where you should step in and soothe any hurt feelings, or whether Baby and their playmate might have the skills to work it out for themselves.
  • The follow-up: Talking to Baby about their own feelings about a friend, a playdate, or just a random encounter with another toddler, along with what the other child might have been thinking or feeling, can help them develop their empathy and social awareness and may help the next playdate run more smoothly.

The parent component

It may not seem fair that when Baby makes a new friend, you need to make one, too – and that Baby has picked out your new friend for you – but it’s only at this very specific point in their life when you’re really in charge of their social calendar. Once they start school, they're start to take a little more responsibility and control over their social life – and the older they get, the more that will be true.

In the meantime, if you notice Baby getting extra friendly with another tot on the playground, or at playgroup, and you think they'd like to play with their new friend in another setting, it’s more than just Baby you’re setting up a playdate for – you’re most likely signing yourself up for an afternoon of socializing too, so it can be helpful to try to feel out how much time you’ll want to spend with Baby’s new best bud’s parent or guardian before you sign on for a full-day playdate.

Remember that it’s about Baby

It’s easy for parents of young children to worry about and get very invested in their toddlers’ friendships and relationships, but worrying too much can start to transfer that worry to tots who might have felt fine with the situation on their own. Parents can grow embarrassed when their toddlers don’t “play nice” right away or can worry about social isolation if their little ones don’t leap right into social interaction, but toddlers often aren’t ready to start to worry about their social interactions unless they’re given a reason to. Baby’s social skills will grow a lot over the next few years, and right now it’s totally okay for them to just focus on making a few baby steps. 

  • Laura Markham. “4 Year Old: How To Help Make Friends on the Playground.” Aha! Parenting. Dr. Laura Markham. Retrieved September 13 2017.
  • “Toddlers Making Friends.” Raising Children. Raising Children Network, June 17 2014. Retrieved September 12 2017.
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