If I was to ask you who your BFF is (that’s ‘best friend forever’ in kidspeak), rarely will the answer be someone you met as a very young child. This is because truly strong friendships often don’t develop until later in life. But while toddlers generally need to go through several stages of play and learning before being ready to make solid friendships, gradually understanding how to make friends is an important social skill and one that broadly helps in many areas of later development.
Different strokes for different folks
Just as they come in many different shapes and sizes, toddlers also develop very differently and show very distinct personalities, even at such a tender age. For this reason it’s critical to avoid comparing your toddler to others and to steer clear of competitive behaviour with other parents. Remember, too, that the toddler with the most early play dates isn’t necessarily the most socially advanced child.
Some toddlers will already be more outgoing and relaxed. For these naturally active and social children, friendships can tend to form earlier.
Other toddlers are somewhat shy or more socially withdrawn. For these children, gentle encouragement towards making friends, while role-playing at home and helping with social skills, will help. Never try to force friendships.
As with adults, some toddlers are also far more content just in their own company. For this reason it’s very normal for some kids to not have friends until later preschool. It’s all part of the normal toddler spectrum of wonderfully interesting characters and unless your child is very socially aggressive, constantly anti-social or completely avoiding socialising, there’s no real cause for concern – and if there is, his carers at daycare or preschool should be able to highlight genuine problems for you.
Expect social gaffes!
When it comes to most aspects of development, toddlers don’t automatically acquire a skill but rather gradually develop competency. This holds true for friendship skills and what it means is that the road can be a little rocky. But while most toddlers don’t make friends easily straight off the bat, they will get better with preparation, practice and, most importantly, patience. Keep in mind young toddlers also make normal social errors, such as snatching, as they’re still egocentric. They don’t yet understand other toddlers’ emotions, only their own needs!
The path to pals
Until about 15 months, young toddlers initially engage in ‘peripheral play’, which involves mimicking other children’s play, but at a safe distance. At this very early stage your child simply needs animation and encouragement when he ‘references’ another toddler (‘referencing’ is simply acknowledging the other child, such as smiling at her, uttering towards her, pointing to her or copying her actions). Now is the time for him to simply be around other kids, such as spending time at the park watching. Try to avoid forcing interaction and instead allow your child to determine when to engage more intently and closely. At this stage, going to mums’ groups or playgroup can help your toddler become more confident with other children being around, even if he isn’t ready for friends yet.
Soon after, toddlers typically move to ‘parallel play’. This usually happens anywhere from from 15 to 24 months of age, depending how much a child has been involved in social settings such as playgroup. Your toddler will begin this type of play by playing closer to another toddler but engaging indirectly, the two not really interacting. Your toddler might play with blocks near or alongside another littlie, but they will rarely share the blocks and won’t cooperate in building together yet. Your toddler is gradually building his confidence with friends, who at this point are still unknown and possibly fearful forces. It’s important to avoid forcing cooperative interaction, but you can gently encourage sharing and verbally prompt engagement (“Look, Claire is building one too. That’s fun...”).
If you avoid forcing friendships or engineering relationships, your toddler will eventually move on to ‘cooperative play’. At this stage your toddler is more socially perceptive and may simply be choosy, meaning he mightn’t naturally be drawn towards those children you hoped would be his friends. So while you may be close friends with another family, your toddler may now sense a factor that he’s not comfortable with and so avoid or reject your friends’ child.
The cooperative stage often comes with improved language so toddlers can express ideas, make plans, share and even disagree. Now is the time for more playdates, where you can set up games that do involve sharing toys, playing with the same two toys, cooperating towards achieve something and the like. Be positive and give genuine regard for nice play, sharing and taking turns. You might need to demonstrate this yourself, but avoid controlling play. Disputes are natural, so don’t be too alarmed. Rather, teach your toddler to ‘use his words’ to resolve conflict.
Most importantly, always let you child progress at a pace that he is comfortable with. With encouragement, positive role-play and gentle guidance, most toddlers will happily find friends and develop social confidence.