How to help a child with their social skills

How can you teach your toddler the right social skills she needs to make friends?


Turning your self-centred toddler into a considerate child with manners to be proud of can be a long, slow process.


“Boundaries and self-control are not yet in your toddler’s vocabulary,” says Linda Russell of The Parent Coaching Studio. “What’s more, she’s desperate to explore her world, and when you say, ‘no’ you just get in her way.”

Couple that with her growing desire to assert herself, and you may find yourself sounding like a broken record. “She’s striving for independence and beginning to separate herself from you,” explains Linda. “She realises she has choices about whether to say, ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, to share and even to pull her best friend’s hair.”

But with patient perseverance, she’ll get there. Just remember to mind your own manners too, as she’ll learn most from copying you!

1. Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’

“Learning to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ should be encouraged from before your child learns to speak,” advises Linda.

If you remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in context during your everyday activities with her, she should begin to join in as she learns to talk. However, be prepared to give her frequent reminders in the early days, as little ones don’t always remember.

2. Sharing with others

It can be hard for a young child to understand that his friend will give the toy back when he’s had his go, so try encouraging your tot to ‘take turns’ instead as this is a much easier concept for him to grasp.

However, some things really do have to be shared. “Introduce the language of sharing from a very young age,” recommends Linda.

“For example, say, ‘Shall I share this apple with you?’.”

3. Considering other people’s feelings

Wishing the ground would swallow you up when your child has blurted out an embarrassing comment is an occupational hazard for parents of young children.

“We were in a lift when Lucy pointed at a woman next to us and announced, ‘Mummy, that lady looks like a man!’” remembers Sally, 35, mum to Lily, 5, and twins Lucy and Charlie, 3.

“One of the first steps in teaching children to think of other people’s feelings is to help them learn how they feel about their own emotions,” advises Linda. “So, if your child is having a temper tantrum, rather than dismissing her with ‘Don’t be silly’, say ‘I see you’re feeling angry.’ ”

Discussing her actions and how they make other people feel will help her draw connections between the two.

4 Not interrupting

Every mum knows how little ones demand attention the minute you pick up the phone or begin talking to another adult. “If the phone goes when we’re eating, Imogen will smear food on the wall or the window to get my attention,” says Samantha, 35, mum to Isla, 2.

Explaining the behaviour you want in advance will help your toddler get it right – try, for example, ‘I need to make this phone call, please don’t interrupt until I’m finished.’

“Don’t expect your child to wait more than five minutes before you acknowledge her,” urges Linda. “And if she has waited nicely, say, ‘Thank you for waiting. Now, what did you want to ask me?’”

5. Saying sorry

“Before you request an apology from your child, always establish that it was her fault. If she does say sorry, say, ‘Thank you’ to let her know her apology has been accepted,” advises Linda. “Never bully your child into saying sorry, as this will only teach resentment and humiliation. If she’s really upset, give her time to cool down before she apologises.”

6. Learning to wait

“Make learning to wait a game in the early days – for example, ‘Can you count to five while Mummy puts your brother in the buggy?’ As she gets older, you can increase the waiting time to two or three minutes,” says Linda. “Make sure you thank your child and wait for her when she asks you to.”

7. Table manners

“Try to make meal times relaxed and short – 15 to 20 minutes maximum – otherwise boredom and silly behaviour will start,” advises Linda. “If your child is 3 or older, reward charts can be a great incentive, but make sure you keep the rules simple – for example, ‘No speaking with food in your mouth.’”

8. Volume control

“My husband was reading one of the lessons at a special Christmas church service: his reading was about Adam and Eve naked in the Garden of Eden. After he’d sat down, in the quiet before the next carol, Matthew piped up in a voice the whole congregation could hear, ‘Daddy, what’s ‘naked’?’’’ recalls Toni, 32, mum to Jack, 4, and Matthew, 3.

“Teach your child the difference between outdoor voices and indoor voices,” suggests Linda. “Loud voices are for playing outside, quiet voices need to be used inside. You may also need to look at your own routines. If you’re always rushing around, you may well have an air of chaos around you, which is likely to make you shout, which in turn will encourage your child to shout.”

9. Not being aggressive

“It’s essential to be consistent, as what might seem funny at 10 months will be deemed unacceptable at 18 months,” urges Linda. “If your child does hit out, remove her from the situation but not the room – it’s important for her to see the reaction of the person she has hurt. Get your child to sit with you quietly, count to 10 and then go and apologise.”

10. Learning that life isn’t all ‘me, me, me’

Distraction is a good strategy. “If you’re at another child’s birthday party with your toddler and she gets upset when she realises that big pile of presents isn’t for her, give her a task: maybe she can help pick up the paper from the presents when they’re opened. This will give her something to focus on and a role,” says Linda.

Introduce the language of sharing from a very young age

1. Give feedback

Use exaggerated facial expressions and tone of voice to show what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.

Acknowledge his emotions and reflect them back to him instead of dismissing him with, “There’s nothing to be scared of!” say, “I understand you’re scared. Why?”

2. Role play

Pretend scenarios are useful for showing the links between behaviour and emotions.

Be clear about your emotions in relation to his behaviour.

For example, explain to him, “I get very frustrated when you don’t put your shoes on when I ask you to as it makes us late.”


3. Practice makes perfect

Build your own network of friends with children so he has lots of opportunities to interact in different social environments.

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