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9 simple ways to boost your baby's social skills

Cute toddlers smiling

Like all skills, social competencies are learned. But for toddlers who have not yet mastered self-control, it’s not always easy! Here’s how to help your social butterfly spread her wings.

Loving relationships give young children a sense of comfort, safety, confidence, and encouragement. They teach young children how to form friendships, communicate emotions, and to deal with challenges. Strong, positive relationships also help children develop trust, empathy, compassion, and a sense of right and wrong. In short, they are the cornerstones of healthy human development.

But like any other skill, socialisation and interaction is learned. Each child is born with his own social style – some are naturally outgoing, while others are more reserved. Each child might find one skill more difficult than another, and all young children develop these abilities in small steps over time.

Under the age of three, children can start learning to identify emotions, both their own and others’, says clinical psychologist Claire Toi.

This leads to emotional intelligence later on. Other social skills you can help your child under three begin to develop include: forming early friendships, showing anger in healthy ways, being considerate, working through conflicts, waiting patiently, and following rules.

Here’s how to help your little social butterfly develop skills:

  1. “Even before managing emotions, children need to be able to identify their emotions. When your child is demonstrating an emotion, label it for them; they aren’t born knowing what they’re feeling and their feelings can be incredibly overwhelming, which is why they sometimes result in a tantrum (an expression of a big emotion). Use simple language when naming emotions, such as: ‘You’re feeling very cross,’” says Claire.
  2. Model empathetic behaviour, and start to help your toddler to see others’ points of view: Katie is feeling sad because her daddy just said good-bye. Let’s see if she wants to read a book with us.
  3. Role-play social situations: In a fun, relaxed way, talk about an event like a playdate or birthday party before you go; describe the setting, who might be there, and what might happen, to prepare your little person. Help him practice how to meet other children, what to say, and how to say thank you and goodbye.
  4. Captain confidence: Right from birth, babies are learning who they are by how they are treated. Through everyday interactions they get messages like: you’re loved; you make me laugh; I like being with you. You build your child’s confidence when you spend time with them, and as they grow, you can acknowledge a genuinely difficult task with specific praise (‘you used lots of blue’ instead of ‘beautiful’), and give her small, attainable challenges. Confidence leads to feeling secure which leads to interaction.
  5. If sharing comes naturally, encourage it, but it should not be forced in very young children. You could show them how to share: For children between two and three years, you might set a kitchen timer to give them a visual reminder of how long they have to wait for their turn. Acknowledge their experience, ‘it’s really hard to wait, I know you want to swing now. Then give them a choice to give them a sense of control: ‘Do you want to wait for the swing or do you want to go on the slide?’ suggests Claire.
  6. Play turn-taking games. Try taking turns passing a toy from left to right around a circle. This way, they can see the object coming, and can start to practice waiting for it to get to them.
  7. Model social skills: Let your toddler see how you go up to someone and introduce yourself with a warm smile, and talk to them in a friendly, confident way. This gives them a pattern to mimic.
  8. Arrange play-dates: Children need practice to learn to share, take turns, resolve conflicts, and experience the joy of friendship. Playing together helps children develop all of these important skills. Be on hand for guidance, to offer choices for activities and a safe loving environment.
  9. Help your child learn to resolve conflict in healthy, appropriate ways.

Under the age of three, it is very typical for toddlers to battle with sharing, taking turns, and following rules, because they have not yet mastered self-control. Help them by explaining how to resolve problems: Explain calmly and as simply as possible what happened (you pushed Ruby because you wanted the bangle back); point out the consequences of the behaviour (after you pushed Ruby, she started to cry. It hurt and she felt sad.) Together think of a better choice for next time (use your words to ask for the bangle).

Many of the social skills your child starts to work on at this age are ongoing and will take years to develop fully. His best teacher is you, and his most effective learning method is mimicking. Let him see your compassion, empathy and love in action.

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