Social Intelligence for Toddlers
Any parent of a toddler knows it isn't always easy to teach them social skills. The first step is helping them learn to manage their emotions, which is the foundation of interpersonal relationships. This skill set is more critical to their happiness in life than academic success, financial success, or any of our other conventional measures. In fact, emotional intelligence -- defined as the ability to manage one's own emotions and relate well with others -- will be a crucial factor throughout their lives in their eventual academic and career success.
So how do you teach your sweet but neanderthal toddler social skills?
1. Empathize, Empathize, Empathize. Kids who receive a lot of empathy for their own feelings from the adults in their lives are the earliest to develop empathy for others, and research has shown that empathy for others is the cornerstone of successful interpersonal relationships. But empathy doesn't mean analyzing your child. For more on Empathy, click here.
2. Don't force toddlers to share; it actually delays the development of sharing skills! Kids need to feel secure in their ownership before they can share. Instead, introduce the concept of taking turns. (“It’s Alysha’s turn to use the bucket. Then it will be your turn. I'll help you wait.")
3. Let the child decide how long his turn lasts. If kids think adults will snatch a toy away once the adult's random idea of "long enough" has passed, you're modeling grabbing, and the child usually becomes more possessive. If the child is free to use the toy for as long as he wants, he can fully enjoy it and then give it up with an open heart. If the same child uses the same toy every single time, you can either buy a duplicate toy since it's such a crowd-pleaser, or alternate turns visit by visit.
4. Help your child wait. If your child has a meltdown waiting for her turn, it's an indicator that she's got some big feelings to let out and is using this handy opportunity. Kids often get rigid about possession in an attempt to shore up their fragile equilibrium--just like adults! Empathize: "It's hard to wait...You wish you could use the bucket now..." and hold her while she cries. You'll be amazed to see that after "showing" you those pent-up emotions, she probably won't even care about the toy she was crying for, and will happily move on.
5. Intervene with compulsive grabbing. Kids who grab constantly, then drop the toy and go on to the next one, are often staving off unhappy feelings . Put your hand on the disputed toy and say "You want the truck?" Then look at the child using the truck. "Is that okay with you?" If it is, great. You don't have to be the arbiter of fairness. If not, say "Jaden's still using the truck, Sweetie...Let's find something else to do...Do you want to use the snowplow to make a road for the truck?" If necessary, nurture him through the meltdown.
6. Teach assertiveness when necessary. If your child often lets other kids take things from him and then seems unhappy, say "You aren't ready to give that up, are you? You can say 'I'm still playing with this.'" Practice acting this out at home with him, and demonstrate it with teddy bears.
7. Instead of praising sharing in the abstract, help her discover what's great about it. Research shows that when we praise sharing kids do it more -- but only when we're watching! When we aren't, they actually do it less, because our praise doesn't give them any reason to share except that moment of attention from us. Instead, empower her to
make the choice to share in the future by helping her see the effect of her choice: "Look how happy you made Michael when you gave him a cookie."
8. Stay close during playgroups. Many kids hit during social interactions because they get overwhelmed and they just don't know what else to do. If you're there, you can say "Yes, Ryan took your bucket....is that okay with you? No? You can say 'My Bucket!'" If your child knows you're there for backup, hitting won't become a habit.
9. Before friends come over, toddlers should have a chance to put away their most special toys
if they don’t want anyone else to play with them. Use this ritual as
an opportunity to explain that the visiting child will of course expect
to play with Junior’s other toys, just as Junior plays with his
friends’ toys at their houses.
10. Set clear limits on physical acting out. "You can be as mad as you want. AND we don't hit. Come, let's tell Henry how mad you are; I'll help you. Or you can throw pillows at the couch as hard as you want. But no hitting and no biting.” Kids are entitled to their feelings, which have a way of just showing up in human beings, like our arms and legs. But all humans, even little ones, should be held responsible for what they do with their arms and legs and feelings. Our job as parents is to teach them healthy self-management techniques without being punitive, which always makes kids more physically aggressive.
11. It’s never too early to give children language for their feelings. Labeling emotion is the first step in the brain's ability to process it verbally instead of physically. “That big dog’s bark is scary, but you’re safe on this side of the fence and I would never let it hurt you. You don't need to be afraid.” “It’s so frustrating when you work hard on your tower and it collapses like that. No wonder you're angry.” The exception to this is when children are in the throes of big emotion, when too many words takes them out of their heart and into their heads. At those times, just reassure your child he's safe, and save the words for later.
12. Remember that underneath anger is usually hurt or fear. Acknowledging those feelings is always more effective to diffuse anger than simply labeling the anger, which just seems to reinforce it. “I hear you’re very angry at Jimmy. I wonder if you’re hurt that he wants to play with someone else right now.”
This is even more important when kids say "I hate him!," because hate is not a feeling; it's a stance. "You
feel so angry at your brother right now that you feel like you hate
him. Sometimes when we are very, very angry, we feel that way, even
toward people we love. Let's go tell your brother how hurt you are
that he pushed you off the swing, and how angry that makes you feel."
13. Model working through difficulties. When she's mad at her friend, for instance, you can say "I know you're really mad at Maria right now, but friends sometimes get mad and then they work things out. We can talk about how you might work things out with Maria when you feel ready."
14. Begin introducing the concept of noticing how other people feel as early as you can. "Look at Michael. He's crying. I think you hurt his feelings.” “That little girl is sure mad. I wonder why?" "Neela hurt herself. I wonder if we can do anything to help her feel better?"
15. Stay Calm. Research shows that one of the most important things parents can do to help kids learn to manage their emotions is to stay calm themselves. Kids need to experience their parents as a "holding environment" -- a safe harbor in the storm of their turbulent feelings. If you can stay calm yourself, and soothe your child, she will eventually learn to sooth herself, which is the first step in learning to manage her feelings.
16. Remember they're kids. Just because James bites a playmate doesn't mean he'll be an axe-murderer. It's important not to permit bad behavior toward others, but that doesn't mean you don't offer understanding -- and the confidence that your child will learn. "All kids get mad at their friends sometimes. It will be easier, as you get older, to remember how to control yourself when you get mad, so you can work things out." Kids need to hear from you that they aren't bad people, just little.
What about sibling sharing? Of course, all of this applies to siblings. BUT the most common reason for siblings having a hard time sharing is that they have to share more than toys -- they have to share you!