In order for us to realize just how ‘primitive’ our young children’s social interactions are we need to understand something about child development and age appropriateness. Children, for example, do not realize that there are people other than themselves in the world until they are between 14 and 24 months. Therefore a baby looking into a mirror does not realise they are looking at themselves and instead sees a stranger looking back at them.
Parents, caregivers and teachers of toddlers who have knowledge of how young children’s social skills develop understand just how important their role is in helping this process. The key point to understand is that social skills do not develop naturally, they must be taught. Social skills for toddlers such as sharing and playing with others develop through training and practice, and lots of it. Each time your toddler faces a situation where their natural reaction is to bite, hit, push or yell this is the perfect time for you to step in and ‘teach’ them the appropriate social skills they are needing to learn. These ‘mistakes’ are the times where you can teach skills in a meaningful way.
It is a natural response for parents to become frustrated with their toddlers behaviour. We even use terms such as ‘the terrible two’s’ or ‘toddler tantrums’ to explain some of our young child’s more difficult behaviour. However when we realise just how many new skills our young children are learning in the first three years of their lives we can easily sit back in awe of all the many skills they manage to achieve in such a short time. In order to have advanced social skills they are required to master a language, manage their own emotions and choose the most appropriate behaviour for a range of situations. Children will learn these many skills if they are taught them, rather than punished for not performing them properly. A toddler needs a training programme that is both kind and firm, where they are taught appropriate behaviour rather than being punished for inappropriate behaviour.
Teaching your Toddler to Share
The ability to share begins around the ages of 3 or 4. Children under this age are too young to share and need to be taught how. There are normal steps in learning to share such as possessiveness and ownership which are part of your child’s natural development.
Children under the age of two are egocentric, which means they really are the centre of their own world and they are therefore too young to share. A toddler’s inability to share is not selfishness, but rather natural human development. One of the first words a child learns is ‘mine’. When the world is all about you of course you believe that everything in that world is yours. It is therefore pointless to try and convince a child under 2 that something does not belong to them, this would only invite a power struggle. Your child really does believe it is theirs and you will only upset them and yourself in the process by trying to convince them otherwise.
Children are learning to share at this age and need guidance and teaching.
When a child is having problems sharing try:
Finding solutions, such as finding another toy they can offer a friend
Finding something else they can do while they wait for their turn
Suggesting and demonstrating ways they can play with the toy together
Teach the process of sharing:Kindly and firmly remove the item they wanted, offer comfort yet allow them their frustration, then offer empathy “It is hard to share. You really wanted that.”
Model sharing by playing trading games with your child or play games where their dolls have to share with each other.
Support your child’s need to possess something by providing more than one of the same toy or helping an older child find another toy.
With this kind of teaching a child will begin to share on their own around the age of 2 to 2 ½ but still not every time.
Hitting and Other Aggressive Behaviours
The model of teaching rather than punishing can be applied to all situations a young child faces. A toddler becomes easily frustrated when they are playing because their social and language skills are still developing. Toddlers also play beside each other at this stage, which is called parallel play, rather than with a friend which comes when they are older, therefore it is essential to supervise children well and join them in their play to use this time as a teaching time.
When you see a toddler become frustrated you know they may well hit, bite or yell and therefore it is important to step in, redirect them and explain “it is not ok to hit Jamie, let’s find another toy, you can play with Jamie again when you can be kind” this is far more effective than scolding or lecturing.
“Social skills are a language that must be practiced, integrated, and learned at deeper levels when children are developmentally ready (Positive Discipline in the First Three Years, by Nelsen, Erwin and Duffy, p.169).”
By Carmen Benton MA (Ed), Dip Tch, Dip Couns.