Saying hello, sharing, making friends, coping with frustration... These are all learned skills, and it takes time to learn them! How can you help your child develop the valuable social skills they’ll need for the rest of their life? We’ve prepared the following primer to guide you.
By Julie Leduc
Bianca Pilote-Lavoie and Simon-Pierre Martel, the parents of 1-month-old Joséphine, 2-year-old Gaspard, and 4-year-old Constance, remind their two older children every day that they have to wait their turn to play with a toy or go down a slide, for example. It’s normal for parents to have to repeat themselves, as it’s difficult for young children to wait their turn. Simon-Pierre uses everyday situations to help his children understand the concept of taking turns: “When we’re in line at the grocery store, I show them that I have to wait my turn because there are people in front of me who got there first,” he says. Bianca has found board games useful, too. “I often play games like Snakes and Ladders with Constance where we have to take turns, and that helps her,” says Bianca. “Now my daughter will tell her brother that he has to wait his turn!”
Saying hello is one of the first steps in connecting with another person. Even if your child isn’t speaking yet, you can show them how to wave hello and goodbye. One-year-old Ziah seems to have gotten the hang of it. “When we go to the park, Ziah watches the other children,” says Élisabeth Barakett, Ziah’s mother. “She loves giving a wave when she sees them looking at her.” “When I pick her up from daycare, I ask her to say goodbye to her teacher and friends before leaving,” adds Hacene Louni, Ziah’s dad. “She tells them bye-bye by waving.”
Young children who have confidence have an easier time standing up for themselves and feeling comfortable in groups. A good way to build your child’s confidence is to let them do certain tasks on their own. That’s what Catherine Leduc does with her 3-year-old son, Hubert. “I try not to do everything for him, even though it’s not always easy,” she says. “When I’m in a hurry, I find a compromise. For example, he’ll put one boot on by himself and I’ll help him with the other one. Hubert also likes to help me set the table, and he loves getting to crack the eggs when I’m cooking.”
Like many toddlers, Hubert gets frustrated when he hears the word no. “It often triggers a big temper tantrum,” says his mom, Catherine. “He screams, he cries, he hits, and there’s nothing you can say to calm him down.” Around the age of 2, and even up to age 4, children have a hard time regulating their emotions and expressing frustration in an acceptable way. You can help your toddler by showing them affection after a tantrum and talking to them about what happened. Little by little, they’ll learn to put their feelings into words. When your child is angry, you can also tell them to gently blow on their finger, as if it were an imaginary candle. This can help them calm down and control their emotions better.
Empathy is the ability to recognize other people’s emotions and imagine what they’re going through. It’s something that is learned over time. Bianca is seeing this with her two older children. “I never thought that at 2 years old, Gaspard would be so interested in his 1-month-old sister,” she says. “He’s gentle with her, and he likes to give her kisses. It’s similar with my 4-year-old. If the baby starts crying, she lets me know and wants to comfort her.” You can help your child develop empathy by showing them affection and being sensitive to what they’re experiencing. This will help them understand that some words and gestures can hurt, while others can be comforting.
Your child’s first social interactions are with their family—that is, their parents and siblings. They learn how to ask for things properly, share, take turns, and settle minor arguments. Children also learn these social skills from people in your wider social circle (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, etc.). When you maintain good relationships, you’re encouraging your child to open up to others.
Being part of a group at daycare helps children develop social skills. Daycare is like its own little society: there are many kids, and often more than one adult to look after your child. Spending time with lots of other people teaches your child how to follow rules, express their needs, wait their turn, and be attentive to others, among other things. Catherine has noticed that little Hubert’s social skills have improved since he started attending a home childcare service: “He’s better at getting dressed by himself and sharing his toys with others.”
Did you know that you can use books to help your toddler recognize and manage their emotions? You can do this by talking to them about the emotions that the characters in a story experience. For instance, you could ask, “Why do you think the little girl in the book is upset?” or “What about you, what makes you feel better when you’re sad?” Books about things like sharing and arguments are also useful for teaching kids how to get along with others. Plus, children become interested in books at an early age, as Élisabeth has noticed with her 1-year-old daughter. “Ziah brings me the books herself so we can look at them together,” she says. “Her favourite story takes place in a park. She likes looking at the pictures of children playing together.”
It’s hard for young children to follow rules, so sometimes you have to step in to help them. Learning to follow instructions helps your toddler behave well in a group and develop strong relationships with others. You can help by giving them only a few simple, age-appropriate rules and making sure they understand your instructions. For example, Catherine gets down to eye level with her 3-year-old son and uses simple words. “I tell him that he has to stop jumping, for example, because it’s too noisy for the downstairs neighbours.” You can also let your child know how you expect them to behave. For example, you can tell them to walk quietly like a cat. You’ll find you often have to repeat the same rules, so be patient!
Try to give your child frequent opportunities to play with other children. You can take them to the park, participate in activities at a family organization, or invite a friend over to play. When your toddler plays with other children, they learn to share and how to express their needs. They also learn to work with others, such as when doing puzzles or playing with blocks. If you see that your child is having trouble asking nicely, waiting their turn, or sharing toys, you can stay with them and guide them.
Like a mama bear, Élisabeth likes to hold little Ziah close. “I’m always hugging her, rocking her, and telling her I love her. She’s still breastfeeding, which also gives us a chance to be close,” she says. Responding to your toddler’s needs with affection and interacting lovingly with them are great ways to create a solid bond. This unique relationship helps your child develop social skills. Children who feel loved, confident, and safe are more likely to reach out to others.
As your toddler begins talking, they’ll start putting their feelings into words and expressing what they want more clearly. They’ll find it easier to make friends and get along with others. Talking to your child from birth is an excellent way to promote your child’s language development. That’s what Ziah’s dad, Hacene, does. “I speak to her in Kabyle, my mother tongue, to help her get used to hearing it.” When you talk to your child, they develop a desire to talk to you, too. As your child grows, encourage their efforts to speak. Ask questions if you don’t understand what they’re saying. You can also repeat any words they mispronounce, making sure to enunciate. That way, they will hear it pronounced correctly.
Being a role model
Your child pays attention to what you do. You’re a role model in every aspect of their learning, and social skills are no exception. When your toddler sees you engage in positive interactions with others, you’re setting a good example. And when you share with them and ask them nicely for things, it encourages them to do the same. Even when your child is a baby, seeing you smile and be kind to others helps them connect with people.
Catherine has been playing a card game about emotions with Hubert since he was 2. “Each card shows a child’s face with a different emotion,” she says. “We have fun mimicking the emotions, like being surprised, angry, sad, or happy.” Catherine has noticed that this helps her son recognize his emotions. “The other day he said to me, ‘I don’t like it when you talk loud, it makes me upset.’” To help your toddler express their emotions, you can also describe what they’re experiencing. Here’s an example: “Are you angry because you don’t want to take your bath? Say, ‘I’m angry.’” Children who can talk about how they feel use fewer aggressive actions to express themselves. This also helps them make friends.
It’s important to let your child play by themselves. When children can play on their own, they develop creativity and autonomy. That’s what Simon-Pierre does with 4-year-old Constance and 2-year-old Gaspard. “When we’re in the yard, I let them pick their own games,” he says. “For example, my daughter likes to pretend she’s going to work, while my son can entertain himself for a long time with just a branch.” Yes, the kids get dirty. They also get hurt sometimes, if they trip on a step, for example. But for their dad, that’s okay. These experiences let them see what they’re capable of and build their confidence.
Sharing is an essential skill for getting along with others, but it’s a challenge for young children. You shouldn’t expect sharing to come easily to your child before the age of 4. To help her kids, Bianca leads by example. “When we’re eating, I point out if I’m sharing food from my plate or if I’m sharing my bread or apple with them.” You can also encourage your child to share by showing them the positive reaction they get when they let someone borrow a toy. For example, you can say, “Look, your brother’s happy because you lent him your stuffed animal!” Make sure to praise your child whenever they share, too.
When to start?
When your child is a baby, you can show them how to behave around others by getting them used to people besides you. “Ziah sees her maternal grandparents every week,” says her dad, Hacene. “We often invite friends who have kids to the park or the mall, to get her used to seeing other people. She looks at them, smiles, and waves to communicate.” When she was 10 months old, Ziah also went to Algeria to meet Hacene’s family. “I was happy to see that she was comfortable with my parents and brothers,” he says. “For example, my mother carried Ziah on her back in an African-style cloth wrap, and Ziah loved it!”
Giving your toddler small responsibilities is a good way to show them the importance of helping others and working together. Even though he’s only 2 years old, Gaspard often does small tasks to help his parents. “For example, he’ll go get us a diaper or wipes for his little sister,” says Simon-Pierre, Gaspard’s dad. “Sometimes he feeds the dogs by pouring kibble into their bowl. He’s proud to help!” When your child feels capable, they become more confident, which in turn makes them more comfortable reaching out to others.
At a year old, Ziah is still too young to have friends, but she’s already learning how to be around others and socialize. “She gets very interested when she sees other children,” notes her mother, Élisabeth. “If they approach her, Ziah wants to touch them, and sometimes she sticks her hands in their eyes. So I show her that you have to be gentle with people.” If your child is older, you can show them how to go up to kids they want to play with and how to say hello with a smile. You can also encourage them to ask simple questions, like, “Do you want to play with me?” or “Could I please play with your toy?”
It may be more difficult for a shy child to connect with others and make friends. However, you can help your child feel more comfortable around people by reassuring them and boosting their confidence. For example, before going to a friend’s house, prepare your toddler by telling them who will be there and how the evening will go. Don’t pressure them if they’re quiet when you arrive, but praise their efforts if they smile at the guests and say hello, for example. Role-playing games, like restaurant, can also help. They’re a fun way to show your child different ways to interact with others.
The social skills your child is acquiring now will be useful once they start school. To prepare them for kindergarten, it’s recommended that you help them get used to playing with other kids and encourage their autonomy. If your child can do certain things on their own, they won’t always have to wait for help from the teacher. They’ll be more confident and feel proud of themselves. In addition, a child who can wait their turn generally finds it easier to follow rules. That means they’ll experience less frustration and be more open to learning.
Having visitors is a great opportunity to teach your toddler how to behave around others. For example, you can encourage them to come welcome your guests, like Bianca does with her children. “I ask Gaspard and Constance to come say hi to guests when they arrive,” says Bianca. “Then I ask them to show their room and toys to the other kids. It doesn’t take long for them to start playing together!”
That’s something Catherine often says to her son Hubert when he behaves well or completes a task on his own. “For example, I’ll tell him ‘Good job!’ because he put his pants on by himself, or I’ll wink at him because he listened to me when I asked him to keep his voice down,” says Catherine. “I always make sure to point out his successes.” Praising your child, encouraging their efforts, and celebrating their achievements goes a long way when it comes to instilling self-confidence and teaching them to stand up for themselves.
Do girls and boys develop social skills differently? In general, it seems that girls are able to talk about their emotions more easily than boys. This may be explained by the fact that girls generally start talking slightly earlier than boys and that parents tend to talk to their daughters more. According to a Quebec study, when it comes to skills such as sharing, cooperation, and empathy, there are few differences between girls and boys.
Learning to stay calm and control your emotions is also a way for parents to improve their social skills! Having young children is demanding, and it’s normal to feel frustrated at times. “I find it tough when the baby won’t sleep and the two older ones are stalling at bedtime,” says Simon-Pierre. “But instead of raising my voice, I take a break from the kids and go to a different room while my wife takes over.” It’s a good strategy: in addition to calming down, Simon-Pierre is also showing his children a healthy way to deal with anger and frustration.
Source: Naître et grandir magazine, March 2020
Research and copywriting: Julie Leduc
Scientific review: Annie Goulet, psychologist
Photos : Maxim Morin, GettyImages/Ozgurcankaya and Nicolas St-Germain