Playtime isn't always fun and games when you're a toddler. It can be tough to share your toys, take turns and compromise, especially when your language skills are still fairly limited. So it's not surprising that play dates often dissolve into a heap of tears, a tug of war over the Elmo phone, or worse, a slugfest.
Your instinct as a parent may be to jump right in, but that's not always the best course of action. "It's healthy to give kids an opportunity to learn through trial and error how to resolve conflicts," says clinical psychologist Sharon Fried Buchalter, author of Children Are People Too (People Too Unlimited). "It forces them to begin working things out on a basic level." The key is to teach them from a very young age how to handle potential conflicts before they arise. Here are some tried-and-true techniques:
Set ground rules Establish from the get-go that in your family's home, there is no hitting, teasing or name-calling. If we don't like the way something is going, we use our words to express it. Refresh the ground rules before your child's friend walks in the door -- or after the friend arrives, if you think it would be helpful for both of them to hear.
Lead by example Teach toddlers how to compromise by demonstrating the way it works. She wants to play dress-up but he wants to do puzzles? Let's try on crazy costumes for 10 minutes and then tackle that big animal puzzle together!
Facilitate communication Help kids articulate their feelings. Phrases like "he's stupid" or "I hate him" often really mean, "I want a turn on the scooter and I'm frustrated that he's not letting me have one." Prompt them to figure out what's really upsetting them, and what will make them feel better, advises Buchalter. You might say to your child, "It's okay to feel angry, but instead of throwing a toy at your friend, how about saying, 'I really want a turn on the scooter. May I have a turn?'"
Offer alternatives Everyone likes to feel they're in charge and children are no exception. Instead of dictating how conflicts should be resolved, ask for their opinion. Does the fire truck need a time out if it's causing so much trouble? Or should we set the timer and give each of you five minutes to play with it? Do you have other ideas for how we can solve this problem? Kids will be more invested in the compromise -- and be better able to devise one next time -- if they have a hand in creating it. And when they agree on a solution, be sure to say what a great idea it is and how clever they were to have thought of it.
If, despite your best intentions, a conflict seems to be escalating -- and especially if it gets physically or verbally abusive -- by all means step in. Stay calm, show understanding ("She said you're ugly? That must be very upsetting.") and try to be objective. If the fight got physical, ask both parties to apologize and state firmly that violence is not acceptable. Most importantly, focus on finding a solution. You might say, "What happened here? How can we fix it?" The prevention techniques also work in the heat of the moment -- helping kids articulate their feelings, soliciting ideas on how to compromise and offering alternatives.
Once there's closure on the issue, offer humor or a distraction to get the play date back on track. "Who wants to bake cookies?" or "Who wants to go to the park?" will shift the focus to something positive and help the squabble fade to a distant memory.
Remember to praise the children when they're sharing and playing nicely, says Buchalter, "You'll reinforce that behavior and be more likely to see it again."
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