Your toddler: Social and Emotional Intelligence

Socialise your toddler

Social skills and toddlers and two phrases that can strike fear into the best parents. Parents of toddlers know how challenging it can be to instil social skills on the journey from toddlerhood to preschool age. Toddlers inherently want to be happy and have friendly, playful encounters with others but the mix of age and being in social situations can sometimes mean that their own fears and needs get in the way of a good play experience. They’re thinking: Will that child grab my tractor? Can they get the doll before the other toddler does? If they grab a toy from another child and run off, will they get away with it?

There are a series of steps involved in helping your toddler to evolve into an emotionally stable child – unless there are medical or other issues to consider, think of your toddler’s development in these terms: Help your toddler to learn to manage their emotions by demonstrating the desired behaviour and through constant repetition of that behaviour.

Secondly by helping your toddler to develop empathy for others, you will be teaching your toddler about how others feel and how they may feel in the same situation, as they grow and learn. They will eventually recognise and build on those emotions, making their choices accordingly.

You can then help your toddler learn to negotiate by teaching them how to express their needs and desires through good communications skills, appropriate for their age. Teaching your toddler about sharing, giving and taking turns while considering how the other toddler feels during the process will help your toddler to learn how to take part in group play activities without the need for grabbing, having a tantrum or expressing their desires in a negative way.

Helping your toddler to develop these skills will have a significant impact on their future happiness in childhood and in their happiness and success later in life. These years are the foundation years, what our children learn now about socialising and interacting with others will help to shape their interpersonal relationships in the future. Emotional intelligence is defined as “the ability to monitor one's own and other people's emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, using emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour”.

This all seems very practical in reality but in reality, it can be a real challenge on a day to day basis to nurture good social skills and avert possible toddler tantrums. When deciding on your approach, think about the following points and decide how best to address each scenario in a way that will resonate with your toddler and have the most positive outcome.

Show empathy

Research shows that children who are exposed to lots of empathy when it comes to their own feelings are more likely to mirror those same emotive responses themselves, allowing them to build healthy, successful relationships.

Sharing is important but should not be enforced

Children should feel safe and secure in their own world before they are capable of sharing it with others. Meaningful sharing comes from a feeling of confidence and security. Don’t force your toddler to start sharing too early on and at every opportunity. This will develop organically over time, with your positive encouragement and by giving your toddler enough time to enjoy things in their own space before expecting them to invite others in to share it with them.

You can start by taking turns, short periods of time spent passing things back and forth between yourselves and praising the act of giving. This will help to encourage your toddler to do so of their own accord as they associate the act of giving with a positive feeling.

The waiting game

Part of learning to share is learning to wait your turn. If your toddler is not able to wait or finds it difficult be patient, this can indicate that your toddler has lots of emotions bursting to come out. This is not a bad thing! Use this as the perfect opportunity to teach your toddler about how to wait for their turn.

By holding your toddler, reassuring them about the fact that their turn will come despite their need for instant gratification, you will find that after a few tears and some battling of wills, your toddler will soon forget about the toy as the main issue and will feel better after releasing the pent up emotions.

Once your toddler has calmed down again, let them have their turn and you will soon find that your toddler is far better able to control their impulses regarding sharing if they know the boundaries and feel your presence at a time when they are having difficulty managing how they feel.

This is all part of growing up and learning about emotional boundaries. It is fine to feel a certain way but it is just as important to learn how to contain those emotions or release them in an appropriate form.Involve your toddler in decision making

Allow your toddler to decide how long they want to play with a toy or item for. If they believe an adult is simply going to remove that toy from them at will, they will already be in a raised emotional state.

Your toddler does not understand your reasoning behind the idea that they’ve played long enough with that toy or game. By simply removing it at your will, you are modelling ‘snatch’ behaviour. Plan your toddlers play, keep reminding them that they will soon be going off to do something else and to enjoy playing with their toy or game until the time comes to give it to someone else or put it away so that the day can continue. Encourage your toddler to actively participate in the ‘giving up’ stage of play.

Monitor compulsive behaviour

If you notice that your toddler often grabs a toy from another child only to throw it down after they’ve done so, moving on to something else as they really didn’t want the toy in the first place but instead had a need to demonstrate their feelings, it can be time to focus on why your toddler may be acting out in such a way. Your toddler may need help to process some feelings about the situation.

Perhaps they are tired or feel that another toddler is getting more attention than they are, by snatching or repeatedly exerting their presence and authority over another child, they may be signalling that they have a need in that situation that has not been met and by acting out, they fulfil that to some extent by attracting attention in response to their behaviour. They crave the attention, regardless of whether it is good or bad.

Compassion plays a key role in these situations. Intervene as soon as you notice this behaviour. Go back to the idea of teaching your toddler to wait. Engage with them directly in this situation, be full and present so that your toddler has your absolute attention. Ask the other child if they would like to continue playing with the toy and if not, then as them if it is OK for your toddler to play with it for a little while. If not, then distract your toddler with another toy or another fun activity.

You can reassure your toddler that when the other child has finished playing, they can have their turn. You can also encourage your toddler to interact with other children in group activities to encourage sharing and taking turns. Praise all the children as they play together so that they learn to enjoy group play.

Encourage sharing through active praise

The research shows that children are more likely to share if they are praised regularly while we watch them share.

Children covet the praise we give them so being present and actively praising your toddler as they share, encourages this behaviour more and more. Talk to your toddler as they’re sharing, comment on how happy the other child is when they share and how they have had a hand in the happiness of the other child. Tie this in with the idea of not restricting the length of time your toddler can play with their chosen toy but remind them that when they’re done, it would be lovely to make someone else happy by sharing the toy or game.

When you adopt the policy of letting kids have a turn for as long as they want to, they happily give the coveted item to the other child when they are finished playing with it. Your toddler will then experience a more genuine feeling of giving than if they were instructed to do so. This will encourage more voluntary sharing over time.

Teach your toddler how to be assertive

Perhaps your toddler is the quiet, shy one in the group. Often at the mercy of other more outgoing children who take toys and games away from your toddler. If this is the case, helping your toddler to feel more confident by building their assertiveness can help to encourage more active participation in group settings. Teach your toddler to voice their feelings by saying that they are still busy playing with that toy and that when they’re done, they will share it with the other child.

You can work on this skill at home in your toddler’s own environment, a bit of regular role play with you will help to reinforce the idea and build their confidence without the pressure of a busy play environment. It can be very effective to include toys such as dolls or teddy bears when acting out the various more assertive responses.

Monitor physical behaviour

Some children act out physically in social situations. Some may hit or bite, other may throw toys or push other children. This is often due to feelings of being overwhelmed and out of ‘control’ of their immediate environment and they do not know what else to do other than act out to protect themselves from the same fate. Stay close to your toddler and engage with them at eye level. Encourage them to accept their feelings, affirming how they feel if for example another child took their toy, you may say that it is OK to ask for the toy to be returned or to find another toy until the other child is no longer playing with it.

Define the boundaries for physical behaviour

Your toddler is allowed to be angry. They are having a normal emotional response to a situation that is out of their control. Talk to your toddler as they experience their emotions, it is alright to be angry, but it is not alright to act out physically.

Explain to your toddler that they can let the other child know that they are angry by using their words and not their bodies in a negative way. Just as adults feel anger and sadness, children do too. They are entitled to feel that way and to have their feelings acknowledged. If they feel they are being listened to and supported, they will be less likely to act out physically. Talk to your toddler about how they can manage their feelings without being physical towards another child or adult. By promoting healthy emotional management, we will be equipping children with lifelong skills that they will draw on for the rest of their lives.

Teach your toddler how to manage their emotions

Give your toddler’s emotions a name. Young children process information differently at various stages of development. In the early stages of learning, your toddler will be learning words and what they related to. Emotions should be approached with the same logic. Talk to your children about their feelings and reactions. If a loud noise startles your toddler, you can discuss how the loud noise made them feel and that it is OK to feel like that. If your toddler is sad or angry as well as being happy and excited, you can label them all.

Talk about how your toddler feels, what they look like when they feel that way. Pictures of happy, sad, excited or angry faces can be useful tools for this purpose. It can also be useful to use a mirror, draw pictures or look for faces in magazines or other media where you and your toddler can discuss the emotions on the faces you’re looking at. Talk about why the person may be feeling that way.

Show your toddler that you understand their emotions. Often they will not know why they feel a certain way until you support their feelings with words and empathy. Talk things through and discuss how to work through the feelings and what they can do next time to help manage better in a similar situation.

Save the best for later

It is perfectly acceptable to expect your toddler to share in social situations and to actively promote this behaviour. There is however, also a time and a place for your toddler’s most loved toys. If other children will be visiting, you can suggest putting a special toy away to play with later. This can then lead on to the idea that there are lots of other toys to play with and how nice it would be to share.

Is it anger or fear?

You can diffuse anger quickly by acknowledging your toddler’s feelings and by talking about the situation as it happens.

This will help to take the focus off the reason for the anger and allow your toddler to feel supported during the time they are processing their emotions. As well as identifying the emotion, a discussion how your toddler is feeling so that they can identify with and accept those feelings until they pass and your toddler is once again able to join in and play with the other children without feeling angry.

Role play difficult situations at home

When your toddler is in the midst of a meltdown, it can be difficult to reach them logically. You can use role play at home as an effective tool for teaching your toddler about how to deal with conflict or confrontation in a social situation. A great example would be to show your toddler that one teddy has made the other upset. You can then explain that just because the teddy is upset, it does not mean that they are no longer friends. Sometimes friends get upset with each other and that is OK. Show your toddler using age appropriate dialog, how to resolve a dispute so that both teddies are satisfied and they can move on to playing happily again. Role play is a very powerful tool as children mirror the behaviour they see and particularly when it is reinforced by the carer or parent they identify with most.

Teach your toddler about how others feel

When looking at the faces of others and teaching your toddler about their own emotions, you can lead on to ask your toddler how they think another child is feeling if they are showing clear emotional states such as laughing, crying, being sad or happy when out in a social situation. This will help your toddler to recognise emotion in others and how that child or person is feeling and that everyone has the right to experience a range of emotions. Perhaps your toddler would like to comfort a crying child or join in the laughter with others in the group.

Keep calm and carry on

Children look to their primary carers for their cues on how to act and react in life. Research highlights the point that children are more likely to remain calm if their caregivers are also calm. If you are constantly anxious or over-react to certain situations, your toddler is likely to mirror your behaviour. Your toddler will look to you for safety and security, if you’re uncertain of how to handle your own reactions or emotions, your toddler is likely to pick up on this.

Try to remain calm and consistent and instil the same skills in your toddler as often as possible. You can talk about remaining calm and using words or actions to demonstrate feelings of uncertainty or worry. Your toddler will be looking to you for guidance during uncertain encounters so by staying calm and promoting self-management skills, your toddler is more likely to follow in your footsteps.

They’re only young once

It can be very difficult to process your toddler’s behaviour at times, particularly if there doesn’t seem to be a clear catalyst for the behaviour. If your toddler bites or hits, try not to respond by punishing or being confrontational. Your toddler is working hard to manage his or her behaviour and without the benefit of understanding, they are acting out in the hopes of resolving or justifying their emotions.

As a parent, we don’t want our child or our family to be judged based on our child’s outburst so the best approach is to show your toddler and others in earshot that you are calm and managing the situation using age appropriate communication and reasoning. By including the other child in your approach, you will show other parents and children that you do not tolerate negative behaviour but that you do understand the emotions of all involved and you offer a solution that will benefit everyone.

Your toddler will know from your firm but kind tone that you are invested in their emotions but that you are also helping them to work through their feelings so that they can learn from their actions and hopefully, change their response the next time they feel that way. Children need your reassurance when it comes to their emotions. Offer them the security of your presence and the benefit of your experience by loving them and explaining that they can feel emotions but don’t need to act out to process them.

Toddlers experience big emotions on a daily basis and they often feel powerless and out of control in a range of daily activities. There are many factors that influence their ability to cope, not only based on their emotional intelligence but also on physiological factors such as tiredness, hunger or feeling unwell for example.

It can be a scary experience to feel emotions that you don’t understand. Even adults encounter difficult situations where it may be challenging to make sense of our feelings. Toddlers and young children process their feelings through play and acting out. This is how they learn and how they get to grips with their place in society. By helping your toddler to “play” through their inner conflicts, you will help them to resolve them in a way they understand, meaning they will be better able to recognise those feelings and act appropriately in the future.

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