For lots of kids, toddlerhood is a prime time for friendship. Toddlers have the memory to recall enjoyable experiences with others, can clearly demonstrate their affection for other kids verbally, and are beginning to understand empathy. Encourage your child to form friendships as a toddler: Studies show that the earlier kids learn to form positive relationships, the better they are at relating to others as teenagers and adults. Playing with peers also helps kids practice social behaviors, such as kindness, sharing, and cooperation, says Lyness.
Even so, how quickly your child develops into a social creature may also depend on his temperament. Some toddlers are very social, but others are shy. In addition, the way that toddlers demonstrate that they like other children is markedly different from what adults think of as expressions of friendship. Research at Ohio State University in Columbus found that a toddler's way of saying "I like you" during play is likely to come in the form of mimicking a friend's behavior.
This seemingly unusual way of demonstrating affection can result in unpleasant behavior. After all, toddlers are still toddlers. Regardless of how much they like a playmate, they may still grab his toys, throw tantrums, refuse to share, and get bossy. But experts say that this is a normal and necessary part of friendship for kids this age. Through play experiences, toddlers learn social rules, says Lyness. That's why it's so important to take an active roll in your toddler's social encounters by setting limits and offering frequent reminders of what they are. When you establish these guidelines, explain the reasons behind them. ("Hitting hurts. If you want a toy, ask for it nicely.")
Begin by helping your child learn compassion ("Ben is crying. What's making him so sad? Maybe he wants the ball and you have it now"), then suggest how he could resolve the problem ("Maybe he would feel better if you give him a turn"). When your child shares or shows empathy toward a friend, praise him. ("Ben stopped crying! You made him feel better.")
Another way to encourage healthy social interaction is by encouraging kids to use words -- not fists -- to express how they feel. It's also important to be mindful of how your child's personality affects playtime. Kids are cranky when they're sleepy or hungry, points out Lyness, so schedule playtime when they're refreshed.
Regardless of how your child makes chums, one thing is certain: Friendships enrich our lives.
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