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When and how it develops
How did your child start connecting with other people? Making friends? It all began with you. As a parent, you are your child's first playmate – the first one to laugh at his antics and respond to his babbled "conversations." With your help (and reassurance), he's learned how to interact with others and discovered how easy and fun it is to get them to smile, make faces, maybe even make "raspberry" noises back at him.
For the next two years, he'll build on these first experiences, learning to play games, hold conversations, make friends, and delight relatives. Learning to socialize is a lifelong process, one that your toddler is now discovering firsthand.
12 to 18 months
During the first year, your toddler focused mainly on developing physical skills such as grabbing and picking up objects and learning to walk. She enjoyed short bursts of playtime with others, such as Grandma and Grandpa, but she preferred you and perhaps a beloved babysitter or caregiver.
It's a different story now that she's a toddler. She's increasingly interested in the world around her, though she still sees everything in terms of how it relates to her. As your child learns to talk and communicate, she's discovering other people and how fun it is to try to elicit reactions from them. (Toddlers love to flirt.)
Of course, this is also the peak of many toddlers' separation anxiety, so your toddler may be unusually clingy and timid at times. Don't worry, this usually begins to diminish after 18 months.
Now is when your toddler will start to really enjoy the company of other kids, both her age and older. You may notice, though, that she and her pals engage primarily in "parallel play" – that is, they sit near each other but play on their own. Older toddlers (around 18 months old) start interacting more with their playmates but are fiercely protective of their toys.
Kids this age may act like mini Count Draculas, biting their friends, but that's usually related to their exploration of what they can do with their teeth and their inability to communicate what they need. Biting and other forms of aggression such as hitting, kicking, pinching, and pulling hair should be stopped immediately. Say "No biting. Biting hurts." Offer alternatives for expressing feelings such as biting on a washcloth, hitting a pillow, or ripping up paper. Help teach your toddler the words for feelings. Even if she isn't saying much yet, hearing you put her feelings into words will help her develop important self-regualtion skills: "You feel mad that Sally took your block. But no hitting. It hurts."
19 to 24 months
Around the time he turns 2, your toddler will start to actively reach out to other children. But as with any other skill, he learns how to socialize by trial and error. Right now, he's unable to share his things. That's because he lives in the moment and can't envision anything beyond it, so the concept of taking turns – of waiting to play with a toy until after his friend has a chance – is meaningless to him.
Your almost-2-year-old may also be skittish around adults. While some toddlers are quite outgoing and tell anyone who will listen about their newest toy, many kids this age are intimidated by unfamiliar people. And why shouldn't they be? Grownups are much taller, louder, and more assertive than your toddler and his peers.
When you host a party at home, for example, your child may bury his face behind your skirt and say nothing to your guests, or he may even cry and run out of the room. If he doesn't seem sociable, he's not testing you and being impolite, he's merely exercising his toddler right to take things slowly. Although feeling comfortable around older people is a good skill for your toddler to develop, there's no hurry. Your child will let you know when he's ready to sit on his auntie's lap or chat with your best friend.
25 to 30 months
As your child gains experience around other children, she starts to get the hang of sharing and taking turns. She may not be generous all the time, but she can learn to let her playmates go before her on the slide, for example, or take the first cookie. But her attempts are still tentative, and she just as easily asserts her dominance the next minute.
At this age, your toddler also may start to single out one or two friends she cherishes. When you watch her with them she may not seem particularly fond of them – she may even spend much of her time howling – but she probably mentions these friends at home, says goodnight to them out loud, and recognizes them with glee when she sees photos of them. It's her way of letting you know that these are the children who have made an impact on her. They're her best buddies – at least as much as toddlers can be to each other.
While it may seem like a lost cause to try to teach a 2-year-old manners, your toddler is starting to learn the importance of social niceties. She may refuse to say "hello" to your neighbors when you introduce her, or forget to say "thank you" when her uncle gives her a toy for her birthday. But then again, she may run back a few minutes later and say "hi" or give her uncle a giant hug.
There's nothing wrong with her behavior – she'll pick up these rules of polite society gradually over the next couple of years. If you continue to treat her with respect, she'll learn how to treat others the same way.
31 to 36 months
Ever catch your little one deep in conversation with a pretend friend? Don't worry – imaginary friends are normal at this age and pave the way for making real friends. He's learning how to form deep attachments with someone besides you, something you'll want to encourage.
At this age, your toddler is fine-tuning his relationships with real friends, as well as imaginary ones. He's becoming more in tune with others, especially you. He senses when you're feeling disappointed, for example, and will point out that "Mommy's sad."
But he's not very good at it yet. He may laugh when he sees his playmate trip on the sidewalk or won't want to console his brother when he cries. That's because he has yet to fully develop the cognitive skills necessary to be put himself in another person's shoes, the foundation of empathy. But that doesn't mean you can't model kind, empathetic behavior. You're his best teacher.
Some of your lessons in manners may sink in before his third birthday. If you've been modeling considerate behavior all along, he's likely to show glimmers of it now, when his mind has begun to grasp the importance of being kind to others. But it's still unpredictable, because he's still a changeable, evolving toddler.
What comes next
Around age 3, when your child moves from toddlerhood to the preschool years, she'll turn another corner, becoming more confident, independent, and reasonable (at least for the most part). Preschoolers, while still needing your guidance, love, and attention, are better able to communicate their needs and wants, reducing tantrums. Your child's curiosity will rev up too, as she tries to figure out how everything works – from the toaster to her pet rabbit.
Kids naturally love and gravitate toward other people, especially other children. As your child grows, she'll learn how to respond to others in social situations, and her enjoyment of their company will likely grow. Children this age learn a tremendous amount from watching and interacting with others. When your child understands how to empathize with other children and appreciates how much fun it is to have playmates, she'll develop truer, more lasting friendships.
When to be concerned
If your toddler (1 to 3 years old) seems overly aggressive and is incapable of spending time with other children without biting, hitting, or pushing them, you may want to discuss these behaviors with his pediatrician. These responses often arise out of fears or insecurities, such as when a parent is absent or a move is imminent. While all kids can become unfriendly to others, especially when they're fighting over toys or are overly tired, it's unusual for them to be aggressive all the time.