Social Development in Children (1-3 Years)

What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine, too

At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we get lots of questions from our parents about this stage,
especially concerning how their toddler socially interacts with others. To help, we’ve come up
with several ways to understand what’s really going on with your 1- or 2-year-old.

Social development: 1-year-olds

During your toddler’s second year of life, he/she will develop a very specific image of his/her
social world, friends and acquaintances. Of course, your child is at its center, and while you may
be close at hand, your 1-year-old at this stage is most concerned about where things are in
relation to himself/herself.

Don’t expect selfless, harmonious playdates

This egocentric or self-centered view of the world often makes it difficult for 1-year-olds to play
with other children in a truly social sense. They will:

  • play alongside other children and compete with them for toys, but they don’t play
    cooperative games easily
  • enjoy watching and being around other children, especially if those children are slightly
    older
  • offer other children toys or food to eat but may get upset when they respond by taking
    what your child has offered them

Sharing is a meaningless term to a child this age

Every toddler believes that he/she alone deserves the spotlight. Unfortunately, most are also as
assertive as they are self-centered, and competition for toys and attention frequently escalates to
hitting, biting and tears.

Tip: When friends are coming over to play, have on hand more than enough toys for everyone.

Feel like you’re raising a kickboxer?

Because toddlers this age have so little awareness of the feelings of others, they can be very
physical in their responses to the children around them. Even when just exploring or showing
affection, they may poke each other’s eyes or touch too hard. (The same goes for their treatment
of animals.)

When toddlers are upset, they can hit or slap without realizing they are hurting the other child. For this reason, be very alert whenever your 1-year-old is with playmates, remove him/her from the situation as soon as physical aggression occurs and firmly tell your child, “Don’t hit.”

Tip: Quickly redirect the playtime (a snack, singing, blowing bubbles).

1-year-olds are great imitators

At this stage, your toddler is learning important social skills from you, especially the way you handle emotions such as anger, joy, disappointment and approval. This means you must model for your child the way words can be used to resolve conflicts, for example: “I know you want to get down and walk, but you must hold my hand so I know you’re safe.” In addition to imitating you, your 1-year-old will want to “help,” whether it’s doing laundry or raking leaves.

Tip: Even though it may take longer, don’t discourage these wonderful impulses to be helpful. Helping, like sharing, is a vital social skill, and the sooner your toddler develops it, the more pleasant and agreeable child he/she will be.

Social development: 2-year-olds

As you probably know all too well, it’s almost impossible to follow the ups and downs of 2-year-olds. One moment they’re beaming and friendly, the next they’re sullen and weepy, often for no apparent reason. These mood swings, however, are just part of growing up and are signs of the emotional changes taking place as your child struggles to take control of actions, impulses, feelings and his/her body.

An explorer and adventurer

At this age, your toddler will spend most of his/her time testing limits: his/her own, yours and those of his/her environment. Unfortunately, your 2-year-old still lacks many of the skills to accomplish everything he/she wants to do and therefore needs you to oversee and protect him/her. When your child oversteps a limit and is pulled back by you, he/she will often react with anger and frustration, possibly with a temper tantrum and/or hitting, biting, or kicking.

Tip: This is your child’s way of dealing with the hard realities of life and however frustrating it is for you, it’s all part of being two.

The more confident and secure your 2-year-old feels, the more well-behaved
he/she is likely to be

You can help your toddler develop more mature feelings by encouraging him/her to explore and exercise his curiosity, while drawing the line at dangerous or antisocial behavior. In this way, your 2-year-old will begin to understand what’s acceptable and what’s not. Praise your child every time he/she plays well with another child or starts and completes an activity by himself/herself. As you consistently do this, your child will start to feel good about these accomplishments and himself/herself, which is very important for self-esteem.

Tip: The more you encourage good behavior, the more your toddler will exhibit it and negative behavior
hopefully will fade.

Give your 2-year-old plenty of trial runs

Don’t let the relatively antisocial behavior of this stage discourage you from organizing playdates with other
toddlers. Start off with groups of two or three children. Although you’ll need to monitor their activities closely
to make sure no one gets hurt or overly upset, you should let the children guide themselves as much as possible.

Tip: By this age, toddlers need to learn how to play with one another, not with one another’s parents, so don’t hover.

Be prepared for everything from delight to rage but be on the lookout for
red flags

Two-year-olds normally express a broad range of emotions, sometimes within seconds of each other. However, you should consult your pediatrician if your child seems overly passive or withdrawn, continually sad, or highly demanding and unsatisfied most of the time. These could be signs of depression, autism or a number of other conditions. Or there could be a physical problem that’s affecting your child’s emotions.

Tip: Trust your instincts. If you’re concerned about your 2-year-old’s emotional state, please come in and talk with us; we have information and advice, and we want to help.