Toddler Toy Battles – Interventions That Work

The interventions we use when children battle over toys or engage in other social struggles are reflective of our perceptions of their abilities, as well as our general attitudes toward learning and ‘struggle’. Do we perceive babies, toddlers and preschoolers as basically capable? Or fragile and needy? Are our children born active, self-directed learners (as child specialist Magda Gerber asserted), or do they need us to manage their development from day one?  Should we prevent children from struggling, avoid frustration and disappointment, or are age-appropriate conflicts healthy learning opportunities?

My experiences working with infants and toddlers confirm Magda Gerber’s assertions about their competency and the benefits of allowing them to learn through conflict. In my recent post, Share… Wait Your Turn… Don’t Touch… Playdate Rules That Limit Learning, I shared intervention techniques she recommended for helping kids learn from social struggles and some of the reasoning behind this approach. I’m using this podcast to demonstrate and elaborate further:

Transcript of “Toddler Toy Battles – Interventions That Work” (courtesy of Torin Thompson)

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, and I’m going to talk a bit today about handling our children’s toy battles. Now I’ve written a lot about handling conflicts between children, so I’m excited to have this opportunity to verbally demonstrate some of the interventions I recommend. These interventions work because they are minimal, and that means the adults are doing less for the children and allowing children to do and therefore learn more. Children are able to experience and even resolve safe, age-appropriate struggles, express their feelings, gain social intelligence and confidence. These minimal interventions also help children join each other in play, which is actually what they are trying to do, rather than each focusing separately on a toy, which is what generally happens when we say, “now it’s his turn, and then it’s going to be your turn,” or “she had it first,” or “now it’s time to share that toy with your friend,” which usually means give it away to your friend.

Now I realize there’s conflicting advice out there and as I mentioned in my post “Playdate Rules that limit Learning,” when sifting through all the wonderful parenting advice out there about all kinds of things, it’s important, I believe, to ask ourselves, what are our goals? Young children learn to socialize when they have safe, experiential learning opportunities. This is the way children learn best. But this isn’t about leaving them to just figure it all out by themselves. They need our support. And one of the ways we support is by keeping them safe. So if we see that children are struggling, or maybe about to struggle, over a toy, we calmly walk over to them. Now if we know that the child has a tendency to hit or bite when in conflict, we might stride over, but it’s best to save running for extreme emergencies. We want to remain as calm as possible. So then we would be there to place our hand in the way if a child is going to hit and say something like, “I won’t let you hit, I see you want that, you want what Joey has, and Joey, you want to hold that too, you’re both holding onto it. I can’t let you hit. You know, I’m not going to let you, I won’t let you move Joey’s hand. I see how much you want that.”

So we prevent the physical actions but we allow the struggle. Children need us to remain calm and patient and acknowledge what’s happening in neutral tone. As much as possible, we are placing our confidence in them as they navigate these situations.

So one child might be the one that is trying harder to connect, and sometimes that’s going to look like taking the toy away. Another child may be the one that tends to give it up, but if we worry about either one of those children, we aren’t helping them move through this process and learn from it and get to the other side. And then there’s another child that isn’t even willing to step out into the fray.

Trust your child, trust the children, trust their processes, and allow them to move through these different phases that they go through, rather trying to change them or shame kids out of them or fix situations.

In my recent post, Playdate Rules that Limit Learning, I share a couple of examples, which I’ll repeat here to show you how the interventions sound.

Ben and Arthur, both two years old, are holding onto a toy school bus. Ben screams as Arthur manages to pull it away from him. I move close to support them, I acknowledge, “You both wanted that and now Arthur has it,” and I say to Ben, “That’s upsetting.” Ben reaches for the bus again as Arthur stands frozen, and he’s just taking in the situation. And then suddenly, he turns and he runs with the bus in hand, and Ben chases him. They both screech and laugh as they circle around the deck, and this joyful chase game continues for several minutes.

Now that actually happened and it was a game that Ben, interestingly, found a way to instigate every week. So this is the way conflicts are sometimes resolved. But not always. It doesn’t look so neat and wonderful sometimes.

So let’s say Ben continues to be upset and Arthur continues to hold onto the bus. We would stay with Ben’s experience. We would stay calm and say, “Yeah, you really wanted that. I hear, I hear you, I hear how upset you are.”

And then let’s say that Ben says, “I want to go, go home!” Or, “Go home!” Which often happens, but the class isn’t over yet. And anyway, we, we sense that he’s wanting to escape this uncomfortable situation, so this is what we say. “You feel like going home.”

And if he keeps saying go home, go home, we keep staying there with him. “Yeah, you want to go home. You didn’t like what happened. It seems you want to go home.”

We just stay with that, we don’t, you know, panic, we don’t worry that oh my gosh, we’ve got to take him home. We just let it be. Let the feelings be. This is the key to everything. Just allowing it all to be okay. It’s okay to go through these different feelings

Sometimes if the children continue, we might say, “You’re thinking about home. What’s at home? What will you do when you go home?”

So all this does is let children know that we are okay with their feelings and it’s actually very empowering for them, because if we’re okay with their feelings, then they’re okay with their feelings. It’s a wonderful message to give children.

So what if they kept struggling and screaming, both of them holding onto the bus? Then I might say, “I see you holding that together. You’re both holding onto that You’re pulling very hard. You’re, Arthur you’re getting upset too. You don’t want to give up the bus.” It’s not about having a non-stop dialogue.

Mostly it’s about our presence and our attitude and our acceptance. You know, parents are very, very powerful. You’ve probably never had as much power in your life as you do as a parent, or even a teacher. Because your mood, your feelings will affect theirs, so that’s why it’s so important for us to find that place within us where we can unplug those worries and our own emotional responses and just let it be, let it be.

An interesting thing happened in class recently. A quite verbal almost two-year-old was mentioning that she didn’t want this other girl to touch anything. She didn’t want her to touch a climbing structure. She just didn’t want her to touch things. So all I did was acknowledge: “You don’t want Annabelle to touch that.” Now if this girl had tried to pry her hand off of the climbing structure, I would not let her do that. I would say, “I hear you saying you don’t want her to touch that. I won’t let you move her hand.” But so what that she doesn’t want her to touch things? That’s okay.

You know, I think as parents, our tendency is to say, “Well that’s everybody’s, she can touch that, let her touch that,” rather than just letting it be. Children go through these phases and there usually is a reason. Most of the time we won’t understand what the reason is, but they need us to continue to believe in them, accept where they’re at, let it be okay.

Another child in class recently was struggling with every single toy. He wanted certain toys and he would put them down, but then when another child took them, he would scream that he wanted those toys. He was struggling and struggling and it was clear at a certain point that, really, if we’d even tried to fix the situation, it would’ve been fruitless, because it was something that he was going through, it was an experience he wanted to have, needed to have. And then at one point, he finally just completely fell apart, and was sobbing for quite a long time and his mother realized he’d been in a situation where he was slightly younger than other children in his group and things were being taken from him all the time, he felt a bit powerless. It was stressful, so he came into our class and he was able to express these feelings through both his actions and then releasing his emotions.

I realize it’s quite challenging to unplug our emotions, let feelings be, and not worry about what our children are learning at that particular moment in these situations, but it can actually be kind of fun in a challenging kind of way, and it really does work.

We can do this.


More on this topic:

What to do About a Toddler Toy Taker

Helping Toddler Resolve Conflicts – Rules of Engagement

5 Benefits of Sportscasting Your Child’s Struggles

The S Word – Toddlers Learning To Share

The Baby Social Scene – 5 Hints for Creating Safe and Joyful Playgroups

5 Reasons to Love Conflict by Emily Plank, Abundant Life Children

Toddler Bites by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

We Can Work it Out! Kids & Conflict Management by Sarah Morrison and Kelly Meier, Respectful Parent

Could NOT Forcing a Toddler to Share Help With Sharing Conflicts? by Kate RussellPeaceful Parents, Confident Kids

These Toddlers Are NOT Sharing

Don’t Fix These Toddler Struggles

Baby Tug Of War, We’re Just Playing

We Can Work it Out! Kids & Conflict Management

My books: Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids are now available on Audible!

(Photo by Valentina Powers on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Janet- thank u so much for the podcast! It is so much easier to absorb and understand by hearing the tone of your voice.
    Do the same rules apply with siblings? I can’t help feeling that my younger daughter is at such a disadvantage ( though not for long ) and wanting to defend her. Please help me understand how to handle these conflicts between different age or peer groups.
    Thank you so very much for your posts and pod casts. I am always finding the inspiration I need!

    1. Thanks, Kelly! I began the podcast including some advice about siblings, but then it became too long and complicated. I have the tendency to want to share EVERYTHING I know all at once!

      The same rules apply. The big difference is that it is even more crucial for siblings to figure out how to play together and they need even more room to develop their relationship than friends do. Also, you will not be there to monitor them as you probably would with a playdate. Keeping your emotions unplugged and staying neutral when there is an age gap is even more challenging, but it’s important. Choose your battles and let a lot of things slide. The things you let slide (like toy taking) will become far less interesting to do. Remember, YOU set the tone. If possible, I would give your older child a place where she can protect her projects so that her sister does not interrupt or destroy them. Remind yourself that their relationship is not yours to judge… As I repeat in the post, just let it be!

      1. I have two questions (just now exploring RIE.

        I took my son (22 months) to a YMCA playgroup. It is for ages birth – 5 years and has different stations for different age groups. There was a five year old boy there and he was definitely bullying my son. He was taking every toy my son had and walking past him in a huge uncrowded gym and ramming his shoulder into my son’s chest as he walked by and pretending it was an accident. I didn’t see a parent there for him – he seemed to be the nephew of one of the Y facilitators but she was busy and not paying attention to him. My son is a large boy – the five year old was only four inches taller than my son but my son is definitely larger in muscle mass. Son didn’t fuss or cry but just kept looking at me when this kid would take something or run into him. I stayed close to my son and started putting my arm between them when the five year old would reach toward my son to take something or walk by to run into him and just prevented any contact. My son didn’t seem interested in engaging with him and he was just trying to bully my kid. I have no idea if I handled it correctly but I wasn’t going to allow the kid to be so physical with him. At one point I said to the boy, “I won’t let you touch him again.” He lost interest at that point and left the gym. Is there a better way I should handle this?

        The other question is about my two kids (22 months and four months). My 4 month old is rolling over and keeping her head up pretty well. My 22 month old son takes every toy she touches, takes it across the room and drops it on the floor just so she can’t play with it. I’m not sure the letting kids take toys rule applies in this situation because a four month old can’t understand language yet – she just cries half the time. She doesn’t get to play with anything. How do I handle this?

        1. I really hope you get a reply to this! My nephew’s favorite toy is whatever my daughter is holding and I don’t think it’s right to allow him to just take everything, thus putting her in a frustrated state that she can’t express or deal with yet. There is a 13 month age gap between the two of them. He also tends to plow right past her and knock her over. I’d have to sit right next to her at all times to prevent it. I’m almost dreading Christmas because I know he’s going to dominate the situation when it comes time to open any gifts.

      2. What do you do if the other parent in the playdate isn’t on board with this philosophy? My 3.5 year old was having a playdate with a friend who was about a year younger and was NOT into sharing his toys, which I know is developmentally appropriate. I sat and watched, ready to intervene if my daughter got physical with him, but otherwise “let it happen”. His mother, however, would reprimand him constantly and punish at points, stressing all of us out. I tried to reassure her and tell her it’s fine if he doesn’t want to share, to no avail. Any suggestions for how to handle this in the future?

  2. Mary Jane says:

    This is great, so helpful janet, thank you. I’m teaching at a dance camp and have 14 students assigned to me, all 5 yrs old. The other day a girl got her feelings hurt because her friend didn’t feel like holding her hand. She cried, was very upset, and I sportscasted and awknowledge her feelings. This went on for a long time, My question is it got to the point where there is one of me and 14 of them, and the rest of the class needed me. I struggled with what to do, I didn’t want to rush the little girl into getting over her feelings for the sake of moving on, but couldn’t leave the other 13 . Do you have suggestions of how to support a child when this happens in a class setting? If it was a free play kind of scenario we would have all the time in the world, but in this camp setting I feel pressure to stick to the schedule. :s

    1. Hi Mary Jane! I would try to give her a cozy place to be, near where you are. Take her hand and help her if you need to move somewhere. Be very comfortable and accepting. This isn’t about focusing a lot of attention on the child; it is simply maintaining an attitude of calm acceptance.

  3. Mary Jane says:

    Gotcha. Thank you Janet!

  4. Thank you again Janet, another timely post. For me the phrase ‘I prevent the physical action but allow the struggle’ really helps. My boisterous 2 year old has been pushing and grabbing and I’ve been struggling to balance letting her sort things out but not hurting others. That and the need to support her. I’ve been backing off a bit too much I think.
    Thanks again

  5. I have been trying this with my 2 children. I have a 9 month old and a 2 year old. My concern is it is usually the baby that is getting his toys taken away and can’t really do anything about it. Sometimes the baby doesn’t care and just rolls to another toy and sometimes my toddler will offer him a replacement toy but sometimes the baby really just wants to explore the toy that was taken away and he has no way to negotiate that. Do I just point out that he is crying to my toddler or how would you suggest I handle it?

    1. Toddlers are very aware and I’m sure yours sees when her brother is crying, so I would not point this out to her. I would just reflect to the baby, “You had that and now your sister has it. That upset you.” Now, if this object was something your baby was using to ease teething pain, I would find a couple of teething items and offer them to your baby, allowing him to choose. “Is your mouth hurting? Here are a couple of toys that might help.” If the toy taking is repetitive, I would calmly stop your daughter. “I’m going to stop you this time… and let your brother keep this toy. Please find another way to play with him.” Generally, your daughter is displaying impulsive behavior that is normal and understandable. The more neutral and uninvolved you can be in this harmless behavior, the less it will happen.

  6. Thank you for your post. One question though… My two year old daughter is lately the one taking all the toys from kids at the playground. Although we trust her to work through these struggles, almost every other parent does not act in this way. They all make their children share with my daughter, so she ends up with all the toys regularly, and then the parents look at her and us as parents with a glare because our child is holding all the toys. Since they don’t allow their kids to “fight back” and they are forced to share, am I actually helping my daughter? We even find ourselves telling the other children they don’t have to give the toys to her and they can hold on to it if they want to. It feels like the only real life option is to play by their rules, even though we strongly agree with your philosophy.

    1. Yes, I would probably “play by their rules”, because you don’t want your daughter’s behavior frowned upon… But I would also be her advocate and acknowledge things like, “It seems you are trying to play with this boy… I can’t let you take his toy… Maybe there’s another way you can engage him and play together…” This will at least help explain to the other parents what is going on… and it’s the truth!

  7. Magdalena says:

    Hi Janet. I was wondering what you would do when it’s somehow the opposite and your child never takes a toy from another kid and avoids struggling when he is taken a toy from? At playgrounds or playgroups, when my exactly 2-year-old son is taken a toy from his hands he doesn’t cry, or run to catch the toy again. He remains calm and, if I am beside him, he just asks ” What does Jack want?” or “Jack wants…?” Expecting me to finish the sentence. Of course, I remain calm, and tell him that Jack also wanted that toy, but I also insist that he could have also hold tight to that toy. In the end I seem to be the more upset of us three!

    1. Hi Magdalena! This is an excellent self-observation: “In the end I seem to be the more upset of us three!” I would work on removing your adult lens — your investments and projections — and trust your boy’s process much more. I would not assume that he wants the toy and say those things to him. Maybe simply and casually say, “I saw that”, if he looks at you. Children need space and time to figure these situations out.

  8. Hi Janet,

    I’m working through one concept from this podcast, and my lightbulb is switched on, but still warming up. So spot me on this, please?

    My son Sam (18 months) is just learning how to play with others. He held a hand broom and dustpan, and was walking around the campground this morning as we packed up. Another girl, about 5 (?) came up and wanted the broom. Sam didn’t want to give it up, and started crying so I walked over and started reflecting what was going on – his feelings, the girl’s request, their shared desire to have the broom.

    I felt compelled (societal pressure?) to have him give her the broom! And yet, I also felt (sub-consciously?) like this was not the best solution to meet anyone’s goals. BUT, I proceeded to try and convince him to give her the broom, and <> even tried to move his fingers. Of course, predictably, Sam got more upset.

    He wasn’t done playing with it! I didn’t understand this in the moment, and I certainly didn’t support him. That lack of support was probably **more** upsetting than this girl pulling at the broom. Ohhhhh, Sam, I’m so sorry!

    Now my inclination is to continue reflecting feelings and observations, check my own expectations and assumptions, and simply offer, “Sam’s not done playing with the broom. You can have a turn when he’s finished.”

    Am I understanding the gist of your message here? I’d like to think that I practice RIE, but in this example, ugh, I’d like to slink away and hide under a rock back at the campsite.

    Thanks for this and many other inspirations.

  9. Aww, no need to slink away. 🙂 These can be difficult situations to navigate. I would not do either a. (pry his fingers off) or, b. (protect his “turn” and say that he’s not done playing with the broom). Instead, I would be open to allowing the children to engage. I would simply reflect, “Wow, you are really wanting to hold on to that broom and this girl wants to use it. Hmmm…” Give the children a bit of time and open space that is totally free of your emotions and judgment and see what occurs. This is how children learn to engage with each other and build social skills and self-confidence. As Magda Gerber used to say, “Sometimes we win; sometimes we lose”. It is ALL safe and okay…and even positive.

    1. I’m a big follower of your work! Sometimes I need more of an explanation breakdown so I can fully embrace a response. So…
      – you made the observation…and then what? In my experience the 5 year old would physically over power the 18 month old and take what they want. The 5 year old learns they can take from smaller/weaker and get whatever they want. The younger can’t stand their own physically or cognitively since they are not at the same developmental stage as a 5 year old. What are they learning?
      I’m all for kids learning to be resilient but it also makes sense to teach them verbal tools such as “when I’m done then you can have a turn” or “can I have a turn? (No) when your done I’d like a turn please” then allowing the child who has the object to feel ready and willing to give up the thing without feeling outside pressure (such as time limits and taking turns etc) what is the harm in that?

      1. My thoughts exactly. This laissez faire attitude to toy taking is the one part of Janet’s philosophy that makes zero sense to me because it just seems to encourage the strong to overpower the weak. I don’t see how that can be good for any child’s development. Would love to see her response to this.

  10. So when your child is the one who is getting toys taken away or having another child bully her verbally or trying to control their play. Do you just observe and let the child learn how do defend herself her own way? Or is it ok to give her the words to defend herself?

  11. Hi Janet,
    Ive been struggling with this lately. I have been taking my almost 10 month old to playgroups with mostly older kids. Half the time we encounter an older child who will snatch toys out of my defenceless daughters hands, sometimes repeatedly. My mamma eat response after it happens twice is to tell the child that there are a lot omits similar toys to play with and they shouldn’t snatch the babies toys, and I snatch it back. Is this ok? What can you suggest?

  12. Elise Rogers says:

    I needed to listen to this today, I’ve been stressing as my daughter has apparently been rough with other children at daycare due to not wanting to ‘share’.. I was made to feel as though her behaviour was a reflection on my parenting by one of the educators. We don’t condone physical violence, we encourage our two year old to be gentle, to use her words (what limited language she has anyway!). I was so taken aback it took me a few minutes to even ask the educator what the context was and how they handled the situation. I can’t control what happens at daycare and how they respond to the behaviour. Is it unreasonable to ask the educators why they aren’t intervening before the situation becomes physical? I know my daughter, she would only lash out as a last resort.. It’s a tricky situation when we’re not there and just receiving second hand information, it’s not like we can do anything about it after the fact…

  13. Hi Janet!
    I have a question on what to do if the ensuing tantrum seems never ending? I have 22 month old twins so we deal with almost constant toy snatching and I let them work it out about 95% of the time. But there are the occasions where it is a favorite toy of one child that day or something they really loved that was snatched by the other and the crying/tantrum seems to be never ending. I try to tell them that it’s ok to feel sad and that I am there for a hug if they need one but it seems like nothing with end the fit unless they get the toy back. Sometimes this back and forth exchange of – child A having the loved toy, child B takes it, child A throws a fit, then child A gets it back and now child B throws a fit – goes on for a long time so I have a pile of banished toys that they can’t seem to share whatsoever. Do I just ignore it? It gets a bit much for me sometimes.

  14. Hi Janet!

    I was wondering what would I do in this situation which seems to be happening a lot with my 2 year old. He is very shy and cautious of other children. Every time we go to a playgroup or play date children just come up and take toys from him, which he then gets upset and runs to me for help. How do help him learn to not let children take the toys/be more assertive? He always shares with other children when asked but other children rarely share with him and it upsets him especially when they come up and just yank the toy from his hands. What should I do in this situation? Thank you!

  15. Hi Janet! I feel like this I am constantly having to comfort my 2 year at play groups and play dates. He is very shy and cautious of other children, but is very sweet and giving at nature. Children always seem to come up and snatch toys from his hands which he then runs to me for help upset. He never comes up to other kids and takes things from them. He doesn’t have that side to him. My question is how to do teach him to not let kids constantly take toys from him? How do I teach him to be more assertive?

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