There are few things more gratifying than watching your toddler make friends. I remember the first time I made eye contact with a fellow mum across the park as our two year olds giggled down the slide together. As our tired eyes met, I knew we were both feeling the same sense of joy and let’s be honest, relief.
You see, toddlers aren’t the easiest creatures to socialise with one another. They don’t really enjoy sharing, or abiding by social norms, and are taken to fits of screaming and sometimes, the throwing of objects.
The thing is, toddlers really want to make friends, even if friendship just means playing in the vicinity of other toddlers. Friendship is a learned skill just like anything else in life. And while I’m still working on being generally less awkward in making my own mum friends, I’ve accepted the role of cruise director of my toddler’s social life. Lucky for little ones, all it takes is the right venue, a common interest, and maybe some bubbles to get the momentum going on a toddler friendship.
So where does one meet eligible toddler friends? Anywhere that tiny humans like to hang out. You don’t have to sign up for classes to find other similar-aged little ones for your toddler but it can certainly be a great way to facilitate toddler interaction with a predictable group of kids. You can also try heading out to the local playground, an indoor play place, or story time at your local library. Finding a venue is half the battle – but the remaining part is where your effort really begins.
Set your expectations
As mentioned above, toddlers aren’t exactly known for their sophisticated communication and social skills. Their language is still developing and often at different paces. Don’t worry though, while you may be overly aware of your child’s “lesser” verbal skills, toddlers typically don’t mind different communication styles nearly as much as older children and adults.
Additionally, toddlers are still at the stage of engaging in parallel play. That means they aren’t interacting with one another in the traditional sense which can feel concerning for parents. Fortunately, this is completely developmentally appropriate. Your toddler may have a grand old time just doing their own thing next to another toddler.
Preparing your toddler
Think of yourself as your toddler’s friendship coach. You don’t want to just show up to a playdate or potential toddler friendship locale without some practice. There are lots of activities to enhance your toddler’s social skills at home. Modeling friendship with dolls or stuffed toys is a great place to start. Keep it simple. Show your toddler how the toys say hi and introduce themselves when they first “meet.” Perhaps one toy pushes the other; model how to handle that scenario ahead of time. A simple, “We don’t push our friends,” can go a long way. Narrating friendship interactions during screen time can also be a great way to broach these topics.
Talk to your little one ahead of time when heading into a social situation. Let them know what to expect in new situations like birthday parties or if you’re heading somewhere unfamiliar. You can stir up some excitement while keeping the pressure low. Talk about how excited you are to see your friends because you love them and they are so kind. Toddlers learn best through observation; model kindness, reciprocity, and empathy in your own relationships whenever possible.
Even just saying a cheerful hello to other mums out and about shows them that they can safely do the same. Creating positive energy around friendship will plant these seeds for your toddler.
So you’ve set your expectations (hello, parallel play), you’ve modeled positive friendship behaviour, and now it’s time to put it all into action. An organised playdate is a wonderful way to cultivate friendship in a safe, controlled environment. Ideally, you can plan activities that lend themselves to facilitating parallel play. Perhaps it’s an inviting art setup or some imaginative toys set out next to one another with enough space for each child to settle in for their own playtime. It’s important to remember that sharing is a developmental skill that toddlers don’t possess yet. You can avoid awkward toddler altercations by making the types of toys equally accessible to each child. It can be really challenging to share toys with a child at their own home so it’s best to meet on neutral territory for first playdates. Avoid conflict by helping your toddler put away any toys they know they won’t want to share when you do decide to have a playdate at your home.
Sitting close by but not hovering is key. Things can escalate quickly with tiny humans still developing impulse control, and you’ll want to be available to diffuse potential conflicts. It can also be intimidating to be in a new situation with new potential friends. Sitting close by on their level will help your toddler stay calm and feel more at ease knowing their person is close by. You can slowly move further away once you sense the play is going well while remaining within earshot.
Keep social situations relatively short. An hour is plenty of time for a budding toddler friendship. Learning new skills is hard, and a tired toddler is not going to thrive in any setting.
When challenges arise
Unfortunately, just like adult relationships, there will be bumps along the way. Here’s a cheat sheet for how to handle them:
- Aggressive behaviour: Things can get pretty uncomfortable when a child acts aggressively or throws a tantrum during a playdate. It’s important not to shame either child in the process. If it’s your child, consider removing them from the situation. Chances are there’s an unmet need (are they tired? Hungry? Overstimulated?), and they need you to help them regulate themselves. Stepping away is an equally good option if the other child is struggling. Learning empathy and kindness when another human is having a hard time is a valuable skill at any age.
- Shyness: New situations are challenging and everyone reacts differently. Pushing a shy child past their comfort zone likely will not work. There’s nothing to worry about if your child is hanging back or prefers to observe while in the comfort of your lap. In this scenario, it might make sense to engage the other child yourself. You can point out similarities that they both have such as, “Wow! We really love trucks, too!”. When in doubt, snack it out. Hand each child a yummy snack and relax into the moment. Maybe all they do is eat a cheese stick together. It’s a start!
- Rejection: Sometimes your child will feel rejected or left out. And it’s an absolutely terrible feeling as a parent! Unfortunately, this is also part of the learning curve of relationships. When it happens, you can help your toddler navigate it by explaining that maybe that child was having a hard time and affirming that there is nothing wrong with your child.
Your toddler has a lifetime of friendships ahead of them and this is just the beginning. Try not to feel discouraged if it takes some time to find the right fit for your toddler – just because two toddlers are the same age doesn’t mean they’ll click. As always, consult a professional if you have concerns about how your child is interacting with others. Your child’s preschool teachers, pediatrician, or a play therapist can be a great resource if you need more in-depth advice.