Navigating Toddler Friendships: A Complete Guide

A toddler forms friendships quite differently from how an adult would. If you are a parent of a toddler who’s getting into the stage of socializing and making bonds with other toddlers, then you will want to do what you can to support them through the process. Keep reading to find out in the guide to toddler friendships below.

How Toddler Friendships Progress Through the Months

The first thing to note about toddler friendships is that it doesn’t look like what an older child’s playdate might look like. By age 2 is when toddlers first begin parallel play, that is, they play alongside others without actually interacting with them. This might not seem like play to you when you first consider it, but this is just the beginning of your child’s social development.

You will notice that it will take them around 6 months further or more until 2.5 – 3 years of age, to start associative play. That is, playing and interacting with others, not just in parallel. As their social skills improve, their interactions and play with others will improve as well.

Another thing to consider is that toddlers take a much longer time to get comfortable with and become friends with other toddlers. You might have noticed that older children and yourself probably know very quickly whether you can be friends with a certain individual or not.

But not so with toddlers. It may take them weeks or months to form that friendship bond with lots of unstructured playtime thrown in. That’s why it’s important to give your toddler that time and space with a new friend to let that friendship grow. If they aren’t in any kind of early childhood education setting, then you will want to assist by setting up playdates with other toddlers or attending activities such as playgroups.

They Start Noticing Their Peers

Before the age of 2 or so, your child is unlikely to pay a great deal of attention to their peers. They were just too involved in their inner circle, their siblings, parents, and other caregivers.

Once they start noticing their peers, though, they will start parallel play and then associative play and their friendships will develop from there.

It’s fascinating because this will be a huge step up in their emotional and social growth. They will start seeking out playmates who have similar interests as them. But the way they do this is quite unique. Toddlers can’t just go up to someone and ask them what their favourite cereal is. So they find out who’s similar to them by imitation. For example, one toddler will put their hands up and then the other will copy them, thus showing each that they have similar interests and can become friends. It is adorable to witness and also shows you that they are progressing in their friendship and signalling friendship to each other. They create similarity through imitation and it’s something that should be encouraged.

Don’t Force Friendships Upon Your Toddler

Toddlers aren’t going to choose friendships based on what their caregivers suggest, they are more likely to want to choose friendships on their own accord. It takes time for a toddler to choose a friend and they will do so through unstructured play, time together, and imitation.

This is the beginning of them asserting their own personality and freedom in the situation. That’s actually a good sign and should be encouraged.

Toddlers Can Be Outgoing or Introverted as Well

It’s astounding to parents how their babies are already displaying traits and characters even when they are so young. Well, that’s how your toddler will be as well. Some will be outgoing, extroverted, and the life of the party. Others are introverted, shy, and need a lot more time to get comfortable socialising.

Just like you don’t want to force an older child or even an adult to socialize when they don’t want to or aren’t comfortable doing so, the same applies to a toddler. If they have days when they don’t want to socialise with others and play on their own, then understand that and let it be. Don’t put your toddler into playdates with too many peers at once. Two or three children at a time is more than enough. Some toddlers will also hang back and watch others in the group interact with each other for a while, trying to understand the dynamic before stepping in. Once they are ready though, they will form friendships quickly as they have observed and learned enough about the other toddlers. Again, giving them space to do what they will do rather than forcing them into any particular situation is key here.

Don’t Assume Toddlers Don’t Feel Sad About Losing Friends

For some reason, there’s this pervasive sense in the world that children are resilient and will bounce back and forget about situations within days. In some ways that’s true, but they aren’t automatons or robots. If they formed a deep friendship with another toddler and that toddler moves away to another state or country, they will feel the ravages of grief and sadness. A toddler’s friendship is as important to them as are your friendships or your older children’s friends.

You will notice your toddler grieving for some time over this loss if this situation comes upon them. They might even regress and display sadness for a little while, as they resolve their grief over missing their friend. The best way to deal with this is to talk to your toddler about it. Let them grieve in their own way, of course. But also ask them about their feelings of sadness and grief. Also, setting up video calls with their missing friend can help assuage the situation a bit. This way they won’t feel that sadness so overwhelmingly.

Doing role play with the toddler about the situation can also help them come out of their shell and understand what they are feeling. Role-play games can be used in a wide variety of situations to teach your toddler. It’s fun and educational.

How Can You Support and Honour Your Toddler’s Friendships

There are so many benefits to having friendships for toddlers, like:

  • Improving communication skills
  • Lessening stress
  • Improving empathy and altruism
  • Teaching kindness and other skills
  • Boosting happiness and self-confidence

You can do certain things to encourage and support the development of friendships for your toddler. Of course, setting up playdates and giving your toddler instructed playtime is crucial.

But more than that, you want to speak to your toddler about their feelings about friendships. This is a great way to build their understanding of emotions and help them express themselves better.

Make them understand that their peers have feelings or emotions too. It is also helpful to label them so they understand what they are feeling inside. Not only should the easier emotions get labelled, like happiness and sadness, but more complicated ones like embarrassment or jealousy.

During playdates, take opportunities for teachable moments. Take a minute or two to teach young children about kindness or sharing when the opportunity arises. Also, help with conflict resolution in creative ways rather than just punishing them for their bad behaviour. Having to share their favourite toys for a little while or apologise to their peers if they are wrong, should be encouraged.

Explain to your toddler why their peers might be upset about something or what bothered them, so they understand how their behaviour affects others. This will begin their understanding of others and improve their emotional intelligence.

Ready to Go on a Playdate With Your Toddler?

With all these tips behind you, you are now ready to venture into the world of toddler friendships. This is an interesting time for your toddler with lots of growth opportunities.

You will be overjoyed to watch your toddler grow through the process and become a more well-rounded child.

Want more information on how to nurture your child? Learn from the experts here.

This article is designed to provide general advice for parents and guardians, for specific health advice, please consult with your child’s healthcare practitioner.

Tags: Parent's Corner