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When Toddlers Grab Toys

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My 26 month daughter likes to have toys that other kids are playing with. Sometimes she grabs, and when the other child refuses she will scream and pull hard at the toy. Please tell me what to do in situations like that. Once I forced her hand off a toy another child was playing with. First I asked her not to do it but she wouldn't listen and grabbed it. I am so worried.


Please don't worry, this is completely normal behavior for a 26 month old. Your goal is to teach her that other kids have feelings, too.

Often, when babies and toddlers both want a toy, they resolve the dispute without us. They're learning how to navigate in a complicated social world. So sometimes you won't need to get involved.

But if this happens often--that she tries to take toys from other children, and they don't want to give them up-- then it may be that your daughter has some big feelings that she needs your help to work through. Until those feelings come out, she can't really "work with" another child well, or manage her own intense need. It seems like a need for the toy but actually the need is stronger and deeper than this particular toy, and she needs your help to "express" that feeling so that it will evaporate and she can play better with the other kids.

So when she is with another child, get down on their level, right next to them. That way, you can see the dispute coming. If she gets interested in a toy the other child has, you "narrate" for her to help her understand what's happening. "Amber has the like that want the doll, too....but Amber isn't done with it yet...She doesn't want to let go, does she?...Looks like we have to wait for our turn....let's find something else to do." When you talk to your daughter like this, she feels heard. She doesn't get the toy, but she has made her desire clear, and you paid attention. She will now probably let go of the toy and turn her attention elsewhere.

If she insists on pulling at the toy, and the other child lets it go and is ok with that, you can say "Oh, Amber gave you the doll...Is that ok, Amber? Thank you, Amber." But if the other child--in this case, Amber-- looks stricken or begins to cry, you need to say "Sweetie, this is not ok with Amber...she wasn't ready for you to have the doll yet. It's still Amber's turn...let's give the doll back and wait our turn...I will help you wait."

You also do this if the other child does not give up the toy but hangs on for dear life.

In that case, put one hand on the toy, and one arm around your daughter with your hand on her stomach, sort of "containing" her. Your hand on her belly--which is connected to the insula, the source of empathy and a pathway to your daughter's feelings-- will help your daughter move out of "fight" mode and into her own feelings. Your hand on the toy keeps your daughter from grabbing it.

You say "Sweetie, it is Amber's turn with the need to wait...I will help you wait...Come." Hopefully, she will bury her face in your shoulder and burst into tears, and let go of the toy while she is crying.

If she does not start crying, and/or does not let go of the toy, you may have to pick her up and move her a bit away, dislodging the toy at the same time. Try to avoid wrenching it away from her, because that just teaches her to grab.

When you move her away from the toy and the other child, she will almost certainly be crying. That's good. Say "You really want that is hard to wait...I will help you wait." Support her to cry. Once the big feelings driving her to grab are melted away by the tears, she will feel much better, and be better able to engage in a positive, appropriate give and take with the other kids, without over-powering them. And she probably won't even be interested in that particular toy!
Good Luck!
Dr. Laura

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