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Four-year-old Ryan McLynn of Hopewell Junction, N.Y., has no problem making friends. "Ryan will just go up to other kids on the playground and ask 'do you want to play with me?'" says mom Susan. But his sister, Kerry Ann, was always very cautious making social connections. "When Kerry Ann was a toddler, she would only be friends with kids who befriended her first -- and she definitely wouldn't initiate it."
Parents of shy, quiet or reserved toddlers worry that their kids may grow up to be loners or lack a social life. But it's important to remember that toddlers have different temperaments and move at different social speeds. While an outgoing toddler will be happy at the center of a large friend group, a quieter child will likely have fewer friends and may take longer to make them. In that respect, "toddlers are very much like adults," says Kim Whaley, PhD, associate professor of Human Development and Family Science at Ohio State University.
It doesn't matter how many friends your child is comfortable making, as long as he has the ability to make at least one. The best way for you to help boost his social skills is to understand his particular style and guide him with that in mind.
The 123s of Friendship
Friend-making skills develop between the ages of two and four. At age two, your toddler will engage in imitation, or parallel play. He will shadow and mimic others kids that he considers "friends." At three, imitation becomes much less frequent as verbal skills develop. Three-year-olds begin to negotiate, using words to get what they need and want out of friendships. A wrong move by a friend may prompt your toddler to say, "You're not my friend if you don't let me play with that ball."
It isn't until age four that your toddler really starts to pick and choose friends that she most enjoys spending time with. "As toddlers start to mature, they'll gravitate toward others with similar interests and personalities," Whaley says. "Give toddlers credit for having just as meaningful friendships as adults do."
Parents tend to blame shyness for preventing less extroverted kids from making friends. However, there are other factors that come into play. "Shy toddlers may be watching on the sidelines to learn social cues, or could simply not care about making lots of friends," says Whaley. This said, parents should be careful not to label child as "shy" because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"Even now, I have to push Kerry Ann to take the first step. I think she's nervous about being rejected. But she's gotten a lot better," Susan says. "I have a feeling this is never going to be an issue for Ryan."
When your toddler finds a friend -- or a few friends -- that he really hits it off with, encourage the friendship by arranging playdates on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. This way, he will have enough face time to become comfortable and allow the relationship to grow.
Don't Force It
By the time your toddler is four, you need to step back and let him form his own friendships with kids that he chooses to pursue. "Many times, parents will try to force kids into friendships with their own friends' children and the kids won't necessarily like one another," says Dr. Whaley. At this stage, you can introduce the kids, but ultimately allow them to decide whether or not to be best buds. If they're just not clicking, set up an activity, like watching a movie, that allows them to coexist without having to interact much. And then you can visit with the friend that you've chosen for yourself.
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Vanessa Voltolinais an associate editor at Studio One Networks.