The Friendship Doctor

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My Toddler Doesn't Get Along with Friends: Should I Worry?

Three-year-olds thrive on parental approval.

QUESTION

Hi,

I'm the mother of an almost 3-year-old boy. He's an absolute delight when with mum and dad and other adults, but he's very aggressive with other children. When he meets another child, in the street, or in a play situation, he pulls a horrid face and makes growling sounds. He also pushes children (bigger and smaller) and doesn't seem to have developed the appropriate social skills to get on with his peers. 

He attended a childminder (nanny) for a few months and although he enjoyed himself there, there was an older boy who displayed this kind of behaviour to my son (I witnessed this on several occasions). 

Do you think he's learned this behaviour from the other child? And if he has, will he stop? I'm not looking for excuses, or wanting to point at another child and say it's their fault, I'm just very concerned that he's not going to make friends if he doesn't develop good social skills. It's difficult to know how to react in the situations where he is aggressive - Please can you help?

Signed, Concerned Mom

 

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ANSWER

Dear Concerned Mom,

Three-year-olds love to imitate so there is a fairly good possibility that he picked up this behavior from the older child at daycare. The good news is that your son will likely stop acting this way as he gradually is taught new ways of relating to friends. 

By inviting children to your home for supervised play, you can play an instrumental role in teaching him new ways of relating. Hopefully, these new friends will model more appropriate behaviors too. In the short term, it may be better for you to set up one-on-one rather than group playdates for a while. 

Children your son's age often want to assert their independence so it's common that they may have short fuses, wanting what they want when they want it.  Without being overly punitive, your role as a parent is to help your son learn to accept reasonable boundaries. See if you can determine whether there is any pattern to the situations that precipitates his aggressiveness. 

When he acts aggressively, whether he's growling, pushing, hitting or something else, explain calmly, but firmly, that it is unacceptable---and suggest alternative ways for him to respond. When he handles a situation well, let them know how proud you are of him. Three-year-olds thrive on parental approval. 

It's unfortunate that the nanny wasn't more effective in teaching her charges to play less aggressively. When selecting a childcare or preschool setting in the future, make sure that it is one staffed by professional teachers, who know how and when to intervene appropriately. 

The greatest likelihood is that your son will soon outgrow this behavior with your help. Of course, if you don't see his aggressiveness diminishing and remain concerned that it is affecting his friendships, you may want to consult with your pediatrician or a child psychologist.

Hope this helps.

Best, Irene

 

 

Other recent posts about kids' friendships on The Friendship Blog:

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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