There's no doubt that toddler relationships can be complicated. Heck, even adult relationships are complicated, so imagine trying to navigate proper social etiquette when you're a 2-year-old. With all the playground drama and so many social interactions, how do you help your toddler make friends, and how do you even know which friendships are worth keeping? It's not like your kid can just call their friend up themselves for a playdate.
To be honest, one of the biggest challenges about parenting isn't the diaper changing or the struggles of budgeting — it's the social stuff. How do we teach our kids about social friendship when they're navigating things like sharing, keeping their hands to themselves, and using their words (which they don't even have that many of yet)? It's no surprise that making and keeping friends for some young toddlers is just really hard. I checked in with Dr. Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, and Adina Mahalli, MSW a mental health expert and family health provider for Maple Holistics, to see how to help your young children thrive socially.
One of the most important things you can do to help your children nourish their friendships is to teach them about healthy boundaries, specifically physical ones. Let's face it, toddlers hit. Dr. Walfish says that if your "child is under the age of 3 years, I would not expect them to have mastered sharing, delayed gratification, and taking turns." This leaves kids with limited tools to work out their problems, which can result in hitting and, of course, tears. Dr. Walfish explains that the best way for moms to handle these kinds of situations "is for the adult to say, 'No hitting people,' then speculate out loud why you think your child hit. You might say something like, 'Johnny had the red ball and you wanted it. You hit Johnny instead of saying, 'Can I have the red ball?' You are learning to take turns with your friends.'" Kids don't know how to express themselves with words, so it's our job to teach them to deal when things don't go their way.
As parents, it's our responsibility to teach and demostrate how to graciously deal with disappointment. While toddlers are learning things like sharing, taking turns, and using their words, Mahalli says it's still important for children to learn to lose graciously. "Not everything in life will go their way and therefore they need to learn how to handle it so other children will continuously want to be around them."
Being a good friend takes practice, especially for little ones who are new to learning about how the world works. Mahalli says, "You also need to teach your child how to talk and listen, since those are very important skills for friendship." But if your child doesn't get it right away, don't despair. Dr. Walfish says toddlers "should be practicing these as goals and can still become quickly angry when things don't do their way," which is totally developmentally appropriate, so be patient.
Another way you can teach your toddlers to be good friends is by showing them how to be accountable for their actions. Dr. Walfish says not to make your young toddler apologize, because those words won't hold any meaning for them. Instead she suggests that you "have your child use words that have meaning to them. For example, have your child say 'I hit you and you got hurt. Next time I will say 'Can I have a turn?' and I will not hurt you.' This is teaching your child accountability." I wish more adults would communicate like this, don't you?
These are all skills and tools that your child will learn over time with your help of course. Some tips to help your toddler build these social skills include an easy effort like helping them learn to share by having more than one of their toys with you when you take them to the playground. "Your child can play with one while learning to share the other," Dr. Walfish says. Also, give your child practice with social cues by bringing them to playgroups, the park, and other places where they can meet other kids and make friends. Dr. Walfish also recommends "teaching them appropriate verbal expressions of angry feelings." Your little one is still developing their language skills, so have them practice as much as possible. There are so many teachable moments throughout each day.
Just like adult friendships though, some of your child's friendships might not be worth keeping. Mahalli explains: "If you see that your child benefits from the friendship and so does the other child, then the friendship is worth keeping." That's a broad suggestion, but so are friendships. There are so many variables in relationships, so it's important that you pay attention and keep your kid's wellbeing in mind. By helping them along, you can trust that they'll know what a healthy friendship looks like, and how to keep it.