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Getting Along With Others

It never fails  -- now that your little one has become a toddler, your trips to the playground or to a playmate's house often end in squabbles and meltdowns, not to mention embarrassment on your part. You know it's essential to help your child learn social graces, but teaching someone so willful and energetic to control her temper, wait her turn, or share a prized possession seems especially formidable.

Guiding children in the art of getting along with others requires patience, understanding, and gentleness. It's well worth it, though. Introducing social skills to your child early on gives her plenty of time to practice them in everyday situations as she becomes more independent. The result: As she grows, she'll have greater self-confidence and more satisfying interactions with the people in her world.


Between 18 and 24 months, toddlers become more self-aware. They start to use pronouns, especially "I" and "me." Ownership ("mine!") is an important way they assert their independence and identity, and it can be very hard for them to share their favorite toys. In fact, they're possessive about what they rightfully own as well as anything that catches their eye.

Smart Strategies

Prepare for playdates When your child's friend comes over, have him bring some toys so that each child can play with his own things without being pressured to share. But encourage swapping; that way, both youngsters can be rewarded with a new plaything in exchange for relinquishing another.

If younger toddlers fight over a toy, put it away for a while and distract them with another activity or a snack. The tactic of setting a timer and insisting a child give up a coveted toy when it goes off is too advanced for kids under 2.

As a toddler gets older and can better grasp the concept of sharing, let him take a more active role in helping you pick toys that both kids can play with and in storing precious possessions that he doesn't want to share. It's a good idea to plan plenty of activities they can do side by side, such as coloring and playing with clay, cars, and blocks.

Praise baby steps Nothing motivates little kids more than approval. So when you see your child sharing, say, "That was very nice of you to let Joshua play with your puzzle. He's having a fun time, and you're being a good friend." And show your appreciation when he, say, offers you a bite of his cookie.

Model generosityBecause kids are such great imitators, make sure your child sees you practicing what you preach, whether it's lending a tool to your neighbor or offering to run errands for your mother. Point out what you're doing and that it makes you feel good.

Taking Turns

As toddlers and preschoolers begin to play with their peers, they gradually discover that they have to balance their own desires with the needs and wants of others. Learning to take turns teaches your child not only to control her impulses but that ultimately she can have her way by helping someone else.

Smart Strategies

Set the stage Simple games like peekaboo and patty-cake introduce babies and toddlers to the give-and-take of relationships.

Provide words As you're playing together, use phrases that emphasize turn-taking: "When I'm finished, you can park the car in the garage." "Who would like to be the firefighter this time?" "May I use the blue marker when you're done?"

Teach a win-win philosophy When your child goes on a playdate, help her appreciate that her friend also has ideas about how to play and that compromise and taking turns make things more fun for both kids. You can underscore this notion by saying, "You and Lily seemed to enjoy yourselves today. I'm sure she'll want to come over again."

Talking Nicely

Because toddlers have limited verbal skills, they often resort to yelling to get what they want, especially when a stressful social situation creates frustration and anger. Screaming to get his way can make a toddler feel more powerful and is guaranteed to capture adult attention.

Smart Strategies

Respond right away Make it clear that yelling at others isn't acceptable. Explain quietly, "We don't scream. We use calm words to say we're angry." Then have your child apologize.

Stay calm}] When your child is losing control, he needs to borrow some composure from you. So try not to blow up at his tantrum; instead, count out loud, take deep breaths, or explain that you're taking a time-out so you can settle down. He'll learn from your example how to curb his anger.

Let him express himself Give your little one the words to describe what he's feeling  -- whether it's "angry" or "frustrated." Say, "You were mad because Hannah took your cracker, and that's why you screamed." Then be sure to provide an acceptable alternative. Teach him to say, "I don't like that," "Stop it," and "That's mine. Please give it back."

Defuse the situation Direct your toddler to another activity when you see his frustration mounting, or call for a snack break. If necessary, give him a short time-out to regain control. Tell him, "It looks like we need a break," and take him away until he's in a better frame of mind. If he needs to release angry feelings with his body, show him how to pound a pegboard, punch a pillow, or run outside. But keep in mind that such physical outlets for anger may be less helpful than verbalizing his frustrations.

Overcoming Shyness

Even if you think your child is the only clingy one at the birthday party or preschool, acceptance of her slow-to-warm-up temperament without judging it is the best way to help her adjust.

Smart Strategies
Prep her Explain what she can expect. If you're going to a birthday party, say, "All the kids will arrive, then there'll be games, then we'll eat cake, and then we'll go home." Plan to stay by her side as long as she needs you  -- chances are, she'll relax after ten minutes or so. And praise her for small steps, such as starting a conversation or playing with another child.

Don't coax The more you cajole her to join the others when she's confronted by a new situation, the more she's likely to resist. And avoid typecasting her as "shy" or "fearful," which implies that she's disappointing you. Besides, these negative labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Acknowledge fears Say, "I know we haven't been here before. It's noisy, and there are kids you don't know." Tell her you understand that she likes to take her time in new situations and that you'll stay with her until she's ready to join the others.

Focus on the familiar Point out the similarities in your surroundings. "Look, Jason has a cat just like we do." Or suggest that she pitch in, if she likes to do so at home: "Emma is passing out cupcakes. Maybe you can help her."

Practice at home Acting out situations with dolls or stuffed animals can help her rehearse for anxiety-provoking outings.

Remember that kids don't develop in a straight line: Your child is apt to be charming one day and absolutely horrible to everyone the next. But by setting the stage and giving your child lots of gentle reminders, she'll eventually learn to get along with others  -- at least most of the time.

Marianne Neifert, M.D., a pediatrician, is the mother of five children. A contributing editor to Parenting, she's the author of four books, including Dr. Mom's Prescription for Preschoolers and Dr. Mom: A Guide to Baby and Child Care.