Toddler pals can come from places like preschool or daycare communities, parenting groups, or kids in the neighborhood. Whatever form they take, it’s adorable and charming to watch. Even two-year-olds who see each other regularly will often develop friendships. At this age, the definition of friendship isn’t quite what you might see later in the preschool years—your toddler is more of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mindset, and still focused more on her family relationships. But toddlers do develop affection for each other, enjoy the other’s company, and make each other laugh (or cry). Over time, they also grow a level of comfort and familiarity with one another that makes toddler pals special.
Of course, the ins and outs of toddler friendships can be challenging, as a grasp of social rules and skills like impulse control are still a work in progress. Here are some tips to help you navigate the bumpy waters of toddler relationships:
— Naomi Odes Aytur
— Joel Stein
— Madeline Holler
Adjust your play expectations: Don’t worry if your toddler seems like a lone ranger. One- and two-year-olds often play side-by-side, also called “parallel play.” It’s not until age three that they develop the interactive social skills to cooperate actively in play, building towers together or coming up with games and inventing rules for each other to follow. Indeed, even three-year-olds can play together briefly and then move on to another activity or take some solo time. Toddlers of all ages still love to be around other little ones, though, and having small play dates or being in a group setting gives them the chance to watch each other play, as well as learn language and social rules.
Teach conflict resolution: Early in toddlerhood, toy grabbing and aggression can make for tricky play dates, and later in the preschool years, as kids have big ideas and big feelings, it’s common for squabbles to break out.
Rather than swooping in with a solution or distraction right away, consider conflicts a learning opportunity for your toddler. Your goal is not necessarily to smooth the waters (avoid jumping in with, “Give that back to your friend,” or “Play nicely”), but to teach mini-lessons of listening, self-expression, and problem solving. If you sense a problem brewing, take a minute to get down on your kid’s level. When someone swipes your toddler’s plaything, say to your child, “Were you still working with that? Then tell Aiden, I’m still working with that.” If preschool buddies are starting to fight over a difference of opinion, step in with something like, “Hey, I notice you both have some big ideas. Let’s talk about what’s going on.” Allow each tot to say what she wants and follow up with, “So what could we do here?” At first this dialogue will be short and mostly directed by you, but as kids reach two-and-a-half or three, they have the verbal skills to contribute more. Over time, this practice really adds up. (You can read more about conflict resolution for toddlers and preschoolers here.)
Give them a task: Aimless toddler energy is a mixed bag: sometimes it’s charming and hilarious, other times it builds to eruption levels. If you’re trying to avoid meltdowns, it can really help to direct and contain little kids’ energy by focusing it on a game or task. If you know a friend is coming over, pull out the wooden train set or bring a big floor puzzle or building materials into the living room. Make the game look attractive; it might just captivate and occupy both toddlers. Or call out an idea like, “Hey, do you guys want to collect sticks in that wagon?!” Pulling the focus to a project can help encourage cooperation and make play run more smoothly.
De-code the drama: Preschoolers toss around statements like, “You’re not my friend!” or “I’m never playing with you again!” It sounds upsetting and harsh to adults, but as you’ll notice, a blubbering mess of tears and a declaration of hatred one minute can turn into laughs and chumminess the next. This is because toddlers don’t have as much practice moderating their emotions and responses — building this skill is where you come in. Instead of simply saying “That’s not nice,” or “You hurt her feelings,” you can help by translating your toddler’s words (or her friend’s) and getting at the underlying meaning. For example, maybe “Then I’ll never be your friend!” means, “I’m really mad right now and I need space!” Give some suggestions to your toddler for ways to express herself and also help her process if a friend says something mean.
Gently push the comfort zone: By year three or four, a lot of kids have their favorite playmates and seem to not be able to get enough of this person (you might remember the childhood feeling yourself). It’s great for your child to have this deep friendship, but see if you can also expand her world and challenge her comfort zone slightly by making inroads with other kids, both older and younger. You don’t need to force friendships on your toddler, but making a play date with a less familiar kid in class might help her expand her horizons and learn how to work with different personalities.
Talk it through later: When it comes to helping your toddler make sense of her relationships, debriefing is key. As you’re riding home from an event, talk through what happened (both good and bad): “Hey, I noticed that you and Jane had different ideas about how to play family, but then you worked it out. How did you do that?” Or “When Alex grabbed that toy it really upset you, huh? You took some space and calmed your body?” Of course, you may end up being the only one doing the chatting, but even asking questions can be useful to your toddler, because it gets her thinking and helps her make sense of how relationships work.
Depending on your child’s temperament, being with other toddlers can feel like a lot of work for you, the parent. It’s worth it, though; the more your child practices how to play and work with others (and as you help her navigate), the more skilled at friendships she’ll become.