Q&A: 3 Year Old Only Child Will Not Share

blockquote_bgMy daughter is 33 months and I have a few concerns about her social behavior. She seems to have a lot of issues playing with other children her age. I think it’s more of a possessive thing, but she refuses to share her toys with other children who come over for play dates at our house. She will rip toys out of any other kid’s hands and becomes very aggressive, and has even hit other kids before for taking her toys (even when they ask her permission).
It is to the point now where if I take her to our local playground, she will get agitated if another child comes to play in the same area as her. She even will not allow myself or my husband to “play” with her toys and will tell us “no” and take the toy away from us. I feel like a broken record because I am constantly trying to address the concept of sharing with her, but she is not seeming to get it.
Her interactions with other children other than toys is fine. While I do think she is a little shy, she will run and play and even hug other kids, as long as it does not involve any type of sharing of a book or toy. I’ve also noticed that she seems to do better with kids who are a few years older than her. She does not have any siblings so sharing is a concept that is very difficult for her it seems. She is not aggressive at all in any other way except in these situations, and it usually only happens with items that she feels are “hers”.

Sharing for most toddlers is still a foreign concept, and although your daughter is nearing age three it is not atypical for her to still be refusing to share toys (particularly at her own house) with same age peers. She is exerting her toddler independence and believe it or not, defiance is a typical toddler social milestone. Most young children do not play reciprocally with peers until they have well passed their third birthday, and the majority of two year olds will play side by side within a peer group, but you won’t see sharing and the kind of reciprocal play you might see with preschool aged children.

It is typical for 2 year olds to snatch toys from one another and to even hit other children to obtain toys for retaliation if another child takes their toy. Many children at this age just don’t have the social, cognitive or language skills at this age to be able to share. You may have seen the popular Toddler’s Creed:

If I want it, it’s mine.
If I give it to you and change my mind later, it’s mine.
If I can take it away from you, it’s mine.
If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
If it’s mine, it will never belong to anybody else, no matter what.
If we are building something together, all the pieces are mine.
If it looks just like mine, it is mine. 

This is why in Toddler rooms in child care centers you will often see 10 of the same toy, because every time one child picks up the toy phone, all the other children want it.

Having said that, it is great that you are having play dates since she is an only child and exposing her to same age peers to encourage sharing and turn taking. Toddlers learn to share by having the behavior modeled for them by adults and older peers. Implementing some turn-taking games at home, first with you and your husband and later with her playmates, might be a good start. You can start turn-taking with things that don’t involve toys, such as “I am sharing a bite of my sandwich with you…will you share a bite with me?” or “I am stirring the soup, now it’s your turn” or “I am sharing my phone with Daddy” and emphasize when you are sharing with her or your husband. Praise her for all attempts at sharing with you and try to ignore her if she says “no” or resists.

You want to use positive reinforcement as much as possible. For your play dates you could tell your daughter to pick three of her favorite toys that she can put in her bedroom and doesn’t have to share with her peers, but when the friends come over, the toys that she didn’t hide in her bedroom will be used for sharing and turn-taking. You can even set a timer for 3-5 minutes (most 2 year olds don’t play with one toy longer than this) and when the timer goes off, all the kids will be asked to pass their toy onto a friend, making it into a game.

Also let her see you praise the other children for sharing. You can use a reward system with stickers or anything your child (or for her friends too) finds reinforcing and every time she shares she can get a star, etc. When she collects 5 or 10 stars, whatever you decide, she can then get some special reward like a treat, etc. If sharing the toys is especially difficult to start with during play dates, you can instead do something such as a craft or Playdough and build in turn-taking/sharing with “Can you pass the blue paint to Susie?”, or “Can Joey use some of your red Playdoh?”. Again, praise all attempts verbally and call her attention to other playmates who shared “Did you see Susie shared her doll with Amy? That was such nice sharing!”.