My toddler is fighting over toys. He’s so sweet at home, but he will grab and hit when he’s with other children. Our baby group that meets once a week is falling apart because some of the now 15-month-olds can’t share their toys. Instead of peaceful play, we have toddler meltdowns. Some of the moms are ready to quit. How can we fix this?
When a 1-year-old is with other toddlers, you will see him behave in ways you haven’t observed at home. One-year-olds enjoy being with other children, but their play is not the sociable interaction that parents can expect from 3- and 4-year-olds. If you understand what you can reasonably expect from a group of toddlers, you will be able to enjoy yourself more and help your child to gradually learn how to play with others.
Think about how your toddler plays with a parent. He probably demands your attention, he wants you to respond to him right away and he probably likes to tell you what to do, rather than the other way around. His highest compliment to you, or to a visitor, is to bring you a toy. He may decide that it is a lovely game to continue to bring toy after toy, but he may also decide that it is time to take away the toys. Of course, an adult doesn’t mind having a toy truck deposited in her lap and then removed. However, when your 1-year-old wants to play this game with another child who also wants to control the giving and taking, the two toddlers may wind up in a tugging match.
The “give and take” of play is not something a toddler can understand yet. If a parent pressures a 1-year-old to “share nicely,” the toddler will cling even more strongly to his possession, even if the object of desire belongs to someone else. In fact, some children who are constantly pressured to share will get so anxious about being forced to let go that they will hold on even tighter, becoming more possessive than they would have been if left alone.
Toddlers also want to imitate what someone else is doing. A toy may be ignored by two children for half an hour, but as soon as one toddler picks it up and begins to play with it, the other toddler wants it for himself. Within moments, quiet play can dissolve into an intense battle. Most of the time, the struggle will be brief, because 1-year-olds, despite the passions of the moment, don’t attach the larger meaning to these quarrels that their parents do.
That doesn’t mean that adults should ignore warring toddlers. Adults need to intervene when children are struggling and redirect their play, but they shouldn’t pass judgment on the behavior as being selfish or aggressive. They must simply tailor their responses to the needs of each child to help the child learn to play with less conflict.
If your child always seems to grab from others, he may need to have you stay close by him. If he starts to move in on another child, distract him with another toy or try to engage both children in playing with you. Helping your child to avoid getting into repeated conflicts gives him a chance to find ways of having fun without being labeled as a bully.
Some toddlers don’t seem to mind if another child pushes them aside or takes their toys. They may cry for a moment or simply find something else to do. A parent may worry that his child is being too passive and feels that he should stand up for himself. But in another year, the child will have the maturity and the verbal skills to be able to assert himself more. At this age it’s best to allow him to react in the way that he chooses. If he comes to you for comfort, you can help him to find another activity. If he is very upset, you can verbalize his feelings by saying, “It makes you sad when Jimmy takes your toy.” But if you give him too much attention and sympathy, he may figure out that it is more interesting to be the victim than it is to solve problems on his own.
One 18-month-old boy in a playgroup seemed to be so in awe of an older and bigger toddler that he allowed the other child to grab all of his toys without protest. His mother saw the disappointment on her son’s face but refrained from getting involved. One day, when the children were playing outside, she saw her son quickly set aside the shovel and pail he was using when he noticed the other child approaching. Her son picked up a plastic car, and the bigger boy, as usual, took it from him right away. Her son went back to the shovel and pail he had been playing with in the first place, and his mother realized that he had figured out a way to solve the problem on his own!
There are some ways to teach toddlers about sharing and playing sociably. (Sometimes it works better to use the phrase “taking turns”). When you play together, take one toy and say, “Will you take turns with me?” and if he says yes, thank him. If he refuses, say, “Maybe you’ll want to take turns later.” When your toddler wants to taste your food, or wants you to taste his, label that “sharing.” Let your child learn that sharing is a nice word to hear, not a word that he only hears when there is a conflict.
To further prevent conflicts you can plan ahead when your toddler will be playing with others. As the number of children playing together increases, so does the level of stimulation and potential for conflict. Parents need to stay close to toddlers at play rather than waiting for problems to occur before moving in. If certain toys are very popular, it’s a good idea to have several of them. If a child has a special toy he never shares, it’s best not to bring it to the group. Having activities that everyone can be a part of, such as water play or messing with play dough, will keep toddlers satisfied. When you take your child on a visit, if he brings a few of his own toys, the host child may find it easier to share. When you leave, be prepared to distract your child from his host’s toys by offering a favorite object from home that you’ve saved for this moment. Don’t stop on the way home to buy the toy that your child couldn’t let go of — he may be much less interested in it if no one else is playing with it!
Think about this year as the time to teach your child what it means to be sociable, and how much fun it can be to be with other children. Prevent conflict when possible, don’t force the issue of sharing, and wait until your child is 3 years old before expecting him to understand another child’s point of view some of the time.
Meg Zweiback is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner and family consultant in Oakland. She is an associate clinical professor of nursing at University of California, San Francisco and posts articles and other resources on her Web site, bringingupkids.com. To possibly have your question included, please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org