From beginning to socialise, to understanding the emotions of others and respecting them, social skills will help your toddler get along with their peers and ultimately, make good friends.
Conversation opens a whole world of social interaction for your toddler, and it is one of the first ways they communicate with you. Conversation is not simply chatter, though – it is learning: how to greet people, join a conversation effectively, listen, take turns verbally, and even how to end the conversation and say goodbye. It’s also about focusing on a topic, which helps with concentration. To help your toddler become a great conversationalist, simply talk with them as much as possible during the day. Really listen to what they are saying back and engage them with on topic-responsive questions: “Why did the cat do that?”, “What will happen if we do this?”.
Active play provides the opportunity to develop not only your toddler’s learning, language and confidence, but their social skills too. They learn how to: join in, share, compromise, observe, cope well with both winning and losing, and how to finish a game or activity. Play with your toddler every day, modelling good behaviour. Invite other toddlers round to play – around the age of two they may start to interact with each other. Keep an eye out for squabbles over sharing – these are perfect opportunities to teach your toddler the skills required to compromise and resolve conflict, and to be a team player.
Your child will start to learn the skill of ‘reading’ people and understanding their emotions. It’s important that they can read facial expressions, body language (including their own) and have an emotional vocabulary wider than just ‘happy’ and ‘sad’. Reading picture books aloud to your toddler, (with plenty of drama and expression) gives you the opportunity to discuss how the characters are feeling, and how you and your toddler feel about the characters. You can help them understand that other people’s feelings matter, and to respond to them in a kind and caring way. This starts to build empathy, an essential social skill for the years ahead.
We all disagree with people from time to time, but it’s how we resolve those disagreements that is important. You can show your toddler how to manage conflict, whether they’re squabbling with friends, siblings - or you - by simply modelling best practice. When a flashpoint occurs, stay calm and neutral, and don’t take sides. Acknowledge everyone’s feelings and ask what the problem is, rather than why so that they focus on the problem rather than the reasons behind it, which may be too much for toddlers to understand. Reiterate the problem and ask: ‘What can we do to make this better?’ so the toddlers own the problem and come up with their own solution. Help if they get stuck, and give lots of praise when the issue is resolved.
Being able to make and keep friends is an important social skill, and it becomes more complex as we grow up. For toddlers, simply giving them time for supervised play with other children is a good foundation, whether on play dates or at a toddler group. You’ll be able to tell who your toddler gets on with and who they don’t, and you can talk to them about their friends and what they enjoy doing with them. Set a playtime limit so your toddler and their friends don’t become tired, stroppy and uncooperative. It’s better to finish play when everyone is still smiling and wanting to do it again soon.
Respecting people, other creatures and things is an essential social skill. Toddlers learn by observing and copying, so if you demonstrate polite, respectful behaviour, the chances are they will be polite and respectful too (most of the time). Listen to your toddler and they will listen to you. Stroke the dog gently and so will your toddler. There will be disagreements and tantrums, but the important thing is not to overreact – simply point out, quietly but firmly, that the behaviour is unacceptable, and explain how to ask for what they want in a respectful manner. Encourage polite communication and praise each respectful behaviour: ‘Thank you for passing me your bowl and spoon’. Encouraging toddlers to be helpful around the house is a great way to learn and teach respect.
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