Dear Dr. Rene,
My two-year-old daughter is happy, friendly and affectionate around adults, but, aside from a couple of her friends who recently moved away, she just does not seem to like other children at the moment! When I tell her that we are going somewhere to see her friend(s), she tells me that she wants just her and I to go. When we are in the company of other children, she gets upset if they come anywhere near her. While her friends want to hug, hold hands or play together, my daughter doesn’t really want anything to do with them. I stay at home with her, she does not go to school yet, but we do go to classes and meet up with friends on a regular basis. I’m hoping that this a quick passing phase, but was wondering if you have any advice on how I should handle this behavior.
I know it can be difficult to watch your child struggle as she learns to be social. I want to first latch on to that she is friendly and affectionate towards adults, and you mentioned her having a few friends that recently moved. These points highlight that she has the capacity for being social. That she’s even had one recognized friendship at this little age is a positive. I would try to figure out if there was something particular she liked about the friends that moved away and look for that in new playmates. While I wouldn’t force the hand holding or hugs, I would continue to give lots of opportunities for play with her same age peers. Attend playgroups or gym classes, go to the playgrounds and take group swim lessons. Continue to model being social by greeting others, inviting them to join you at activities and talking about concepts like taking turn and sharing. Occasionally, host others for play at your house so she can have practice at being social in more comfortable surroundings.
Many two year olds still tend to engage in parallel play, playing near other children more than with them. By three to four years old, most of them move to more interactive play. It may be that she is simply still at parallel play. She may prefer adults as they lead play easily and offer good ideas. Adults are also more reciprocal than other two year olds with turntaking and sharing and less likely to provide conflicts. It may be helpful to try playdates with a few slightly older children in the neighborhood.
When she does request to be just the two of you, agree when that was already the plan. If it wasn’t, validate her request by saying something like, “I know you want it to be just mommy, but today we are meeting Johnny and his mom at the park.” I wouldn’t ignore her request, hear her first. Then calmly let her know the plan. I would think this will be a passing phase, but it’s something to keep in mind moving forward. I am hopeful for you both that she will find same-age friends easily when a good match presents itself.
You might also read Just You and Me by McBratney and talk about how the gosling wanted to be alone with the big goose, but how nice it was they shared their space with the other animals who wanted out of the rain.