Sharing between toddlers and young children can be a source of stress for children and parents alike. We live in a society where sharing is often an unrealistic expectation of young children, given their developmental age and stage. We can reflect on this by thinking about our own possessions as adults, perhaps something that feels nostalgic or meaningful to us. If we are forced to share this with someone else, of course it is going to bring up a fairly strong emotional reaction. This experience is similar, albeit probably much stronger, for young children, who have not yet a myriad of social and emotional developmental milestones that enable turn taking.

So firstly, I will start this by encouraging you not to force sharing. Sharing needs to feel good in order to be rewarding and increase the likelihood of a child taking turns in the future. This means it is voluntary and when the child is ready. It is far more connecting for the relationship when the handover is voluntary as the receiver is more likely to feel gratitude when they do finally receive the toy.

Here are some of the key developmental shifts your child is working through, in order to enable sharing:

SENSE OF SELF AND BELONGING

Forced sharing reduces the sense of security in a child, They feel they must hold the toy tightly and play with it quickly as the threat of it being taken away is ever near. As such, they never sink into the flow of deep imaginary play because their alert system remains on

A child is developing self concept around age 2 and beyond.You can probably reflect and think about your own childhood memories – you are usually unable to remember childhood events until sense of self is developed as the experience or memory isn’t related to self. This is also a crucial time as they then start to curate an internal narrative of themselves as most memory formation is related to the self “I am …”, I have ….” As appose to what others have or are.

Children need to feel secure within themselves and have a strong sense of self in order to feel safe to let go and share without it feeling like it is threatening the essence of who they are.

I will just divert by saying that toys are some of the few things children can exert control over. If they are lacking choice in other domains on their life, they may feel the need to hold their toys tightly and not share.

IMPULSE CONTROL/DELAYED GRATIFICATION

You might be familiar with a famous marshmallow test which also did the rounds on social media recently. A child is given one marshmallow and told they can either eat that one now, or wait until the person returns to the room to have two. 

The ability to control impulses and delay gratification are major milestones, something that even adults have difficulty with! However you can typically expect a five year old to wait a little longer for the marshmallow.

CAUSE AND EFFECT

Up until around 36 months of age, children are still developing the capacity to understand cause and effect. From 18 months of age, toddler will complete intentional actions with both objects and people to see how it changes an outcome.  In the realms of sharing, this may present by a child experimenting with saying no, purely to see what happens. 

LANGUAGE

Young children do not typically have the ability to speak more than 3 works until they are around age 2. This can make is extremely difficult to express wants and needs!

Around this age you will also likely observe parrallel play, where children have a tendancy to play next to each other or in the same room as apposed as together or collaboratively. Speech during play at this age is usually externalising the childs thinking as apposed to communicating with others.

As a child’s language skills develop, so too does their ability to express their needs.

EMPATHY

Empathy development is a continuous process up until around age 7. Until empathy is fully developed, your child will find it hard to see a situation from another child’s point of view. Your child then has the assumption that everyone feels the same way they do!

Children need to be developmentally ready to share, but we can also show them how to share. For example, we cannot teach a young baby to walk, as they are not developmentally ready, but they do observe others walking and as such learn through observation.

Here are some other ways to encourage turn taking:
  • Encourage the child to ask for what they want if they have a verbal and language ability to do so. This empowers them to speak up for their needs.
  • Hold space for the emotions. It is okay for a child to cry if they don’t want to wait. Waiting is hard and the child may not have met the developmental ability to delay gratification. Showing empathy with our child supports them in their ability to develop empathy.
  • Remain present. Intervene when there is physical conflict to set the appropriate boundaries but allow children the space to problem solve and negotiate.
  • Empathise with needs of each, you can state how you may think they are feeling and what they need in that moment. “I see you are feeling frustrated because you really want that toy right now”, “It is hard to wait”, “When Billy finishes his turn, it will be your turn”. 
  • Put away special belongings together before a playdate
  • Role model sharing and generousity

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