Forming friendships is something every parent and caregiver wishes for their child. You want them, throughout their lives, to experience the joy, love, and security that comes from strong social ties. But toddlers don’t exactly make friends the same way older kids do. If you’ve ever watched your toddler take over a sandbox like a tiny Godzilla, knocking over sandcastles and stealing toys, you understand their struggle! Their self-control, language skills, and capacity for empathy are still developing. However, despite their rocky social skills, toddlers can still benefit from opportunities to form special bonds with their peers.
What Toddler Friendships Look Like
In order to understand how toddlers form friendships, it’s helpful to know how the stages of play evolve. Here, you can read about the different stages of play for 24-36 months, but here’s a quick refresher: By age 2, toddlers engage in parallel play — playing independently alongside one another with very little interaction. Around age 30 months, associative play begins. when they start to experiment with playing with others. Throughout age 2 and beyond, their interactions with peers become more involved as their social skills improve.
This is a really exciting time in their social development! Until now, their focus and interests have been aimed towards their inner circle, mainly playing and learning with parents, siblings, grandparents, or other caregivers. Now, they’re starting to notice their peers. Their social appetite is growing through their improved emotional development and communication skills.
For instance, they start to seek out playmates with similar interests. They begin to realize that others have feelings, and they might offer a hug or a toy to a playmate who’s feeling sad. Soon, you hear your toddler ask for a new friend by name or even scream with excitement when their playdate enters a room. This shows that toddlers are capable of forming relationships with those beyond the immediate family. While they still have their ups and downs and continue to fight over toys and attention, the foundations of friendship are beginning to take shape.
How to Nurture Toddler Friendships
Here are a few tips to help parents and caregivers prepare their toddlers for their first friendships.
Talk About Emotions
Talking about feelings is an essential step in building relationships. Toddlers need to learn how to label their emotions and express themselves so they can communicate their feelings to others. Discussing feelings also helps them understand that their peers have emotions too. We also need to remember that more complicated feelings, like shame and embarrassment, will emerge around this stage as well. It’s important to give these emotions special attention so toddlers can learn to overcome the negative thoughts and feelings that are often associated with them.
Acting out different social-emotional situations is a great way for you and your toddler to practice friendship! For instance, you may pretend to be a friend at daycare, or you can use puppets, dolls, or action figures to rehearse scenarios that call for initiating play or resolving conflicts.
Focus on Acts of Kindness
We want our children to understand how fulfilling it is to be helpful, supportive, empathetic, and kind. These are all vital characteristics that we seek out in our own friendships, so we want to emphasize these qualities so they can see what strong relationships look like. When you see them sharing, being helpful, or comforting a peer, make sure you praise these actions and remind them of how wonderful it feels to be kind to others.
Offer Social Opportunities
Of course, toddlers need social opportunities to form friendships, so planning and attending playdates is key. Just be sure that you don’t overwhelm your toddler with too many too fast, and don’t hold playdates with too many peers at once. Keeping it to two or three children at a time can help ease them into more interactive playtime.
Be Aware of Teachable Moments
When you’re observing your toddler playing with a new peer, keep an eye out for moments when you can step in and offer a friendship lesson. Since they’re still learning how to communicate and understand emotions, parents and caregivers can use this opportunity to guide them. Kind of like a relationship coach for tots! Don’t be afraid to jump in and explain why a friend is upset or how your toddler’s behavior affected someone else.
Ready to play? In the Social-Emotional area of our BabySparks program you can find lots of fun activities aimed at labeling emotions, role-playing conflict resolution, practicing kindness, and much more.