We have all experienced the often tense situation of two toddlers in a tussle over a toy! In actual reality, how we perceive conflicts in social interactions between toddlers can often be more distressing for us than what they actually are for the children themselves! If you have ever observed infants interacting with one another, you would see their consistent attempts at connecting by offering up toys or naturally negotiating swaps without any fuss. Toddlerhood brings a new developmental phase of experimenting with their understanding of self and their impact on their world.
Ways to support your toddler in social situations include:
Understanding the reason conflicts occur
Toddlers often experience toy conflicts as a way of experimenting socially with power, negotiation, ‘give and take’ and limits. Also, often a toy is a way of making initial contact with another child. One research study explored motivational reasons behind toddler conflicts and found they are more about exploration than possession (Licht, Simoni, & Perrig-Chiello, 2008).
Watch and say what you see (providing only enough adult intervention as necessary)
When we perceive these conflicts as valuable social learning opportunities, we can step back and allow them the room to explore with a secure adult saying what they see ‘you are both holding onto that tightly’ or ‘you had that and now she has it, it looks like you are upset by that’. ,.The adult can observe and intervene only as necessary, usually if one or both children become very upset or physically harmful, or a consistent pattern of toy taking is evident. Often when adults intervene unnecessarily, children seek out another opportunity to explore another conflict anyway! This allows learning, takes the focus off the toy, and places it on the social aspect. Instead, it allows the children to begin understanding their place in it and reduces unnecessary labels and mentalities such as victim and aggressor.
Adjust your expectations for a toddler to share
The concept of telling a toddler to share is not usually useful or practical as it usually means ‘give away’ what you have! We often say it to placate, resolve or avoid conflict, or teach our child generosity, kindness, and empathy. None of us wants a child who thinks only of themselves, of course. However, constant forcing (which is often what we end up having to do anyway) our child to share can cause the opposite, an ongoing inability to relinquish items in a natural trusting and truly generous way. It is adult-forced and can defeat the ultimate lesson we wish to teach our children.
Model true empathy, sharing and generosity in daily life
Modelling sharing with your child and understanding them in these situations of struggle with other children is the most beneficial way to produce truly generous, empathetic behaviours in your child.
Introduce turn taking with a focus on patience in later toddlerhood
Turn-taking can be useful, mostly to preserve concentration. In a situation where a child uses an object in a purposeful, concentrated way and another child scoops in to take it, the adult is best to teach the latter child patience by acknowledging ‘you like the look of that and want to use it too. Jenny is using it right now, so you will need to wait for her to finish and then you can have a turn.’ You could then offer ‘would you like to wait here to watch, or would you like to find something else to do while Jenny is busy? ‘ This approach is also not adult-directed in the way of forcing immediate turn-taking, but instead teaches important life skills of respect and patience in interactions with others.
Get out into nature or engage in open ended loose parts play
If you need a break from playdates that end due to repeated conflicts, then get into nature! Meet a friend at a park, forest or beach area where there are endless amounts of opportunities for open-ended exploration in wide-open spaces.
Overall as adults, I believe we can find toddler conflicts so uncomfortable and wish they never happened. Still, a new lens allows us to see that they are a necessary part of life, and what better way to learn a necessary life skill than in the safety of trusted peers and loving caretakers.
Licht, B., Simoni, H., & Perrig-Chiello, P. (2008). The conflict between peers in infancy and toddler age: what do they fight about? (Vol. 28).