In the twenty years that I’ve facilitated parent-toddler groups, I’ve known a handful of toddlers that I’d consider to be socially gifted. These children seem to have an innate knack for engaging with peers effectively and appropriately from the get-go. For the majority of toddlers, however, mastering the ins and outs of socialization is a challenge (lifelong for many of us), and a messy one at that.
We enable our children’s social learning in two important ways: 1) By supporting and acknowledging struggles while intervening as minimally as possible; and 2) Trust. This is the biggie. Children can’t proceed with confidence unless we perceive them as capable learners and trust their processes. So, trust is crucial, but it can be challenging when our child seems either aggressive or too passive.
I’ve already shared several posts and podcasts about responding effectively to children exhibiting aggressive behavior (HERE, HERE, and HERE). So I thought it might be helpful to share some guidelines for empowering the child who seems too passive (i.e., who lets go of all the toys, seems to avoid or capitulate in struggles, or is reticent to engage with others). Here’s what I came up with:
Our children are not us. They may have inherited our quieter, more thoughtful or introspective temperament (strong traits, in my opinion), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’ll be “painfully” shy, socially awkward or, worse, victims of bullying. Even if we were. Our trust and acceptance instills in our children a healthy, strong core of self-confidence, a “comfort in their skin” that we may not have had. This is the best gift we can give them as parents.
Judgments of our own children (Why isn’t he holding onto that toy?) or the children they are engaging with (How bratty of her not to give him a turn!) cloud the air, intensifying the struggles between children and the emotions around these struggles. This makes healthy processing and exploration far less possible.
When we’re caught up in our concerns about our children, it can be difficult to remember how powerful we are in these situations. Young children are extremely perceptive and tuned into us — to the extent that they can almost read our minds. Our doubt in them has a crippling effect. Our perceptions of children as weak, passive, or fragile can become self–fulfilling prophecies
With our open, trusting attitude in place, our interventions will mostly be to prevent physically harmful behavior. When intervening beyond that (i.e., we protect the toy our child is holding), I would do it sparingly, carefully choosing our battles, because over-intervening (i.e., asking other children to include our child in their play) tends to reinforce to our child that he can’t do it himself and needs us to orchestrate his world.
Force or urge children to greet people or participate in activities, etc.
Trust, trust, trust. Again, our discomfort and lack of acceptance is felt by our children and causes them to freeze up, glom on, feel like failures.
Trust and believe in children
It can help to remind ourselves repeatedly: “My child is exactly where he or she is supposed to be in this journey.”
Sensitive observation is the opposite of (and antidote to) projection. It requires us to let go of our fears and doubts, remove our adult lenses, and see with an open mind. My mentor, infant specialist Magda Gerber suggested parents place all our concerns, preconceived notions about our children, and other unproductive distractions in an imaginary basket so that we can be freed up to perceive situations with clarity and better understand our children’s perspectives.
Protect and Support
Calmly move nearby to support children whenever there is tension or a struggle so that hitting, pushing, etc., can be easily blocked. If we get there after the fact, we’re advised to take extra care to remain as calm as possible so as to avoid infecting the situation with our own emotional reactions. Children tend to take experiences in far more slowly and gradually than we do. They need and deserve this time to be able to decide how they feel, rather than having parents do that for them. Left to form their own opinions, I’ve noticed that children tend to be more puzzled than offended by aggression. They want to figure it out, and that’s healthy. It’s been my sense that children relate on some level to the impulse to scream or lash out physically. They receive it in a different way and tolerate it. Or perhaps they’re just more open minded about it.
When we only acknowledge what we know for sure, we can give children lots of breathing room to learn from their experiences. And experiencing it firsthand is the way children learn best.
Offer casual tips and open-ended feedback
If our attitude is trusting rather than fearful and uncomfortable, we’ll be able to nail the kind of delivery that is helpful to our child without it coming off as a correction or reflection of our disappointment. I offer a demonstration in my podcast, “My Child is Too Passive”.
Be the emotionally neutral, safe place for our children to share and explore
This is our goal, and it’s a worthy one, but we needn’t be perfect. Just as with our children, it’s all about believing in ourselves and trusting the process.
I share more about sportscasting, socialization, and the power of minimal interventions in my book:
And here’s a podcast on this topic (you can read the transcript HERE):