You were your child’s first audience and companion, so when they reach the toddler years, they will still thrive on parental playtime and interaction but will also seek and benefit from interaction, fun and friendship with peers. The social skills demonstrated by you will be practiced first-hand by your increasingly sociable tot.
Separation anxiety can peak at 12-18 months and periods of confidence and charm can be interspersed with clinginess. This is a totally normal phase and often coincides with the transitions toddlers are making to find their sense of self. Until now their identity has been closely knit with parents and key caregivers and they may feel stretched as social expectations evolve. This normal confidence curve is integral to learning about who they are and how they relate to the world around you.
Parallel play is a term often used to describe how toddlers first interact with each other. They enjoy peer company but play independently side by side. From around 18 months they up the interaction but can remain protective and possessive of their own toys.
Anti-social behavior such as kicking, biting or hair pulling is often the manifestation of frustrations as toddlers figure out what is and isn’t considered acceptable. Consistent boundaries are important as your child learns the dos and don’ts of playtime. As speech develops communication is increasingly done with words not weapons, phew!
From around their second birthday your toddler will begin to reach out to other children. They may still be wary of grown-ups and new faces but let them go at a pace that suits them, pushing them into play or a new social situation is likely to prolong the period of apprehension. Often toddlers will observe a new environment and move into the action once they have assessed it for themselves.
Toddlers still view the world in relation to them but develop a heightened awareness of how they interact and relate to others. The extent to which your child plays the clown to see smiles, or shares to stop tears will depend in part on character and personality traits (and how much sleep they had the night before!). It is fun to watch toddlers behave in certain way to elicit a response, tentatively initiating first friendships.
As your toddler approaches their third birthday they may have chosen one or two favourite friends. The art of sharing and taking turns is yet to be perfected but progress is being made. And your usually polite offspring is likely to forgo social graces when you would most like them to surpass your expectations, but lead by example. Positive reinforcement works much better than punishment.
Empathy is a sophisticated cognitive skill that can take a while to master so don’t despair at your child’s mean streak. Remember that though their temperament may still be unpredictable, they are learning and evolving rapidly. Pre-school toddlers have usually got to grips with other people’s feelings but lead by example, learning is layered and they will be soaking up your lessons long before they display them. It worked with speech and it will work for socialization too!
If you have concerns about your toddler’s behavior, contact your pediatrician. Together you may be able to identify and address underlying causes that are impacting on behavior.