How to Deal with a Possessive Child
Many toddlers go through a stage of possessiveness. It can be wearing for parents, but it will pass. Your child is finding his identity – and he still has to understand the concept of “ownership”. Your child is not being selfish, but he or she has much to learn about social skills!
Among the first words your toddler learns are “My” and “Mine”. They are useful words – they give your toddlers something they want. Being a toddler is tough – you are physically small, you have little language, so you make the best of the words you do know and the power it gives you. And he wants to hold onto things that are precious to him.
As he grows older, he will learn how to manage his life using the social skills which allow us to get along together. Although we may always want to keep our possessions we do learn to share, to let go sometimes, and to wait our turn.
How do children understand ownership?
In general terms, children do pay attention to the ownership of property. But they tend to think an object belongs to the person who first had it. When a toy is transferred to another child the first child sees it as a betrayal. “It’s mine,” he shouts. He can be quite angry and upset. 
Some children understand the transfer of ownership from as young as age as three – others don’t get it till they are around eight years old. But there are ways you can help them learn not to be so possessive. “I had it first,” justifies his clinging onto it in his eyes.
Your toddler is also becoming aware of her identity. “That’s me,” she can say to her reflection in the mirror. Toys which she is attached to seem like a part of herself, and she does not want to give them away. Even as adults we still put extra value on things that belong to us, behavioural economists call it the “endowment effect”.
There are many ways in which you can help your child acquire the social skills he or she needs – but getting angry and telling them off only hurts you both and is ineffective. You need to address your child’s fears gently but firmly – and always with kindness and compassion. It really is tough being a toddler!
In the next section, we look at some ways you can help your child learn not to be so possessive. Then we look at particular issues in the different age groups of toddler, preschool child, and early school years.
Eight general strategies to help your possessive child
1. They own it – sharing takes time
Your child feels a certain thing belongs to him – he had it first. And learning to share takes time. When you ask a child to share a biscuit, you may be given a crumb so small you need a magnifying glass to see it! But it is a start – next time you may get a bigger bite. So thank the child politely. They feel they are giving you a part of themselves.
When friends come to your home, into his space, he may well feel threatened especially if he has to share his precious toys. He might ask you to hang onto some of his toys – he feels they are safer with you than with another child. This is not an invitation for you to let the other child have them! It’s best to hide his favourite toys before the guests arrive.
2. Taking turns takes time – and kids don’t like waiting
Have you ever seen two children wresting over a bike? The one who had it first will NOT take kindly to having to relinquish it – and the newcomer wants nothing but that bike NOW. This is where you have to step in and suggest they take it in turns. If you can make the waiting fun (telling terrible child jokes or riddles) then the waiting is easier and the other child might even want to join in when you are having such fun! Time the changeover and be sure to give both children the jokes. You may feel your job is done when the bike changes hands – and it may be, but the other child has to be sure he has not lost out. Directing him to a new game or activity will help.
3. You’re HIS or HERs
Your child is deeply attached to you – and they do not want to share you. You are the most precious thing they have and it can be very unsettling, almost a betrayal, to find another child sitting on your lap. You will need to be very reassuring towards your child, telling them you love them and that they are yours, even if some else sits on your lap briefly.
4. There are rules but they may not understand them
There are rules to guide our behaviour – but your child may not have met them yet so you need to explain them in terms your child can easily understand. You need to make it very clear what belongs to them – and what does not. They will file away this information and draw on it later.
As a busy parent, you might find it quite difficult to find enough time to spend with your child. For your own sanity, it’s a good idea to block off a regular time that is just for your child. Bedtime stories are a favourite way to do this and it helps to calm your child down ready to sleep – and it also gives your child a sense of security knowing that you are there for them at this time. If they have worries they will get the chance to share them with you. Kids grow up too fast – so treasure the short time you have with them as they grow older every day. This is their time!
5. Ownership is powerful
Drs Susan Gelman and Nicholaus Noles from the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, studied children who were aged 2-3 years old. The children were shown identical toys and told which one belonged to them and which one did not. Then the Drs shuffled the toys around and asked the children which one was theirs – the kids watched carefully and got it right, practically every time 
Then they asked the children – “which toy do you like the most?” and nearly always the children liked the one that belonged to them the best. Another time the children were shown a block of wood – and told it was theirs, plus toys which were not. “Which do you like the best?” and very often the children said the block of wood. So ownership is very powerful. It’s not surprising how possessive young children can be.
So, to prevent confusion simply tell the child which toy is theirs. “This is your digger, and this one isn’t.”
6. Sharing can be difficult
As your children grow they learn that sharing gives them a nice feeling inside. Some children might take this to extremes and start giving away things you want them to keep. They want to make others feel good, too. So, make sure they do understand that sharing is temporary, they’re not giving away their rights of ownership. This is when it is wise to hide special toys when friends come to play.
Suppose someone you vaguely know was to pick up and try to walk off with your mobile phone – how would you feel and how would you react? It’s like that with kids – if another child yanks his toy away when he is playing with it – is it surprising he reacts angrily?
It’s good to share – but it can be a complex idea to understand for your little one, and although you need to encourage it, be aware of any boundaries they need to keep to. You can show them how to share by giving your child’s toy to another child – and then getting it back and returning it to your child. This shows them that sharing is not permanent and can be a huge relief to your child.
7. Interference or welcome intervention?
You need to be alert and ready to intervene when young children are playing together – but you also need to allow them to sort mild arguments out themselves. It can be a fine line! It is also a chance for you to play with them and show them how to take turns, how to loses gracefully – a very hard task for youngsters and many adults never seem to learn this social skill.
Show your kids by example how sharing can make something even more fun. It also teaches them how to make friends – and making friends becomes more and more important as the child grows and increases his circle of people he knows and reacts with. We all need friends and sharing is one of the best ways to make them.
Children model themselves on their closest adults, and they will be watching you and how you behave! Show them how you enjoy sharing a meal, for example, with a friend, and how happy it makes you feel to have that person’s friendship.
8. Be ready to distract
When you see trouble brewing jump in and distract the children. A new toy, a story, a short film, a walk in the fresh air. It can be very helpful to have a “Boredom Box” of toys – these are toys which they do not often use – often surplus from Christmas. Kids love dressing up so put in any old clothes they could use in the box. Put the box away and when you are stuck for a new idea – hey presto – the boredom box comes to the rescue.
Here are a few things that help at the different stages of development, the two-year olds, the preschool child and the child starting school:
The terrible twos
They are not so terrible at all. Your toddler is learning how to say” No” and to test the boundaries. He is finding his own independent self and his emotions are powerful and often expressed noisily. They will be learning to manage their emotions and to begin to empathize with others. Then you will need you to help them say what they want without being aggressive.
Emotional intelligence is the foundation of our society, so demonstrate how it’s done – empathize with your kids. Show them you understand their struggles. And respect their concerns. They may be afraid of losing a precious part of themselves.
Staying calm under pressure is your most valuable tool. Your children will copy you and a wild shouting match can quiet down as your quietness is catching. Your child feels you are a safe harbour in the midst of their turbulent life.
1. The constant grabber
Some kids will have a phase when they constantly grab any toy from another child. You do need to intervene. Your child may be unhappy about something this is one way to find comfort. So you might say to the other child – “Is it OK if Ronnie has a turn?” if it is – problem solved. If not – then ask the child to tell Ronnie when he’s done and then Ronnie can have a turn. You will need to help Ronnie to wait – toddlers are impatient creatures!
Let the child decide how long his turn should be then he can relax and enjoy his time with the toy. Try not to take it away from him before he has finished playing with it. Then, when he is ready, he will feel good about giving it up to the waiting child.
2. Be his voice
Your toddler has a limited vocabulary. Play with him using the right words for sharing or saying he has not finished with the toy. You can practice with teddy bears.
Physical aggression is a “NO”. Guide your child to yelling or stamping her feet and calling out for you – and be there when she does! Teach her how to say “NO” without physically trying to hurt the other child. Language is so much more useful than punching and it’s never too early to start learning how to use it.
3. Parallel play
Often you will see toddlers playing side by side but independently of the other child. This is normal and even though there is little interaction, it is the start of making friends.
That is not to say you don’t encourage your child to notice if another child is upset, and ask your child how they might possibly help.
By this time your kids will have become more aware of other people and more able to control themselves. Their use of language has improved – but they may also be more exposed to the media. Young children are not emotionally ready for the adult things they might see. Make sure your screens are child-centred.
This is a time when you can build on the trust you have already instilled in your child and help them to understand social cues which is an essential skill in our society.
It’s a complicated world we live in and your child needs help in learning to navigate his way through. They must learn unspoken rules of how to join a game, how to help another child, and so much more. They also need to start to learn how to compromise. This can be a tough one, we are not ruled by logic, but by emotion! You will need to show them the way.
1. Who’s the boss?
Your child is challenging the boundaries and life can be a power struggle. If your child always wants to be the boss, you can help her become more pliant by showing her ways to make everyone happy. If you’re fed up with playing the same game all morning says, “You’ve been playing on the swings for a long time and I think Katy would like to do something different now. What can you think of that you would both enjoy? Be wary of making suggestions as your determined child may decide that your suggestion is a bad idea and she would prefer to keep playing on the swing.
2. Use a short straw system
Write the name of the toys on separate pieces of paper fold them up and put them in a bowl. Let the kids take one each and the name of the toy on their piece of paper is theirs for the duration of the session. For pre-reading kids, you can use the old-fashioned way with straws of different lengths – whoever draws the short straw has to wait their turn.
This is where social intelligence can make school exciting and fun. For some kids, it seems easy they make friends and join in the play – but others, many others are left on the side lines.
1. Listen but don’t tell
It’s hard to sit back when your child has a problem. But some problems have to be left to the child to sort out. You don’t want them to feel inadequate, and usually, they do find ways to solve it. You can help him to understand his feelings, and help them to solve the problem by talking through his ideas with you. But don’t take sides against the other children – no blame is best.
Suggest your child tells what she wants – not what she might think about her “enemy”. Make sure all your children understand that “no” means “no” and “stop” means “stop”.
2. What support can your offer?
Sometimes you need to wrack your brains to think of some strategy to help your child. You might need to teach them certain social skills and practice them with you. There are many children’s books out there that may be relevant and reading together is a good way to bond. You might find that joining a club would give your kid an extra interest and a new way for them to make friends with a shared hobby. You might need to speak to the teacher.
3. Other parents are your social network.
You are all going through the same process as your children start school. Other parents may have solved your problem and can share their experiences with you. Other parents may tell you about difficulties with your child that you were unaware of. And often you make a new circle of friends and a support system for yourself.
Social skills are the most important set of skills that your child has to learn. In the beginning, your child will feel that a possession is a part of themselves, so don’t be surprised if they are reluctant to give it up. Sharing is a skill that has to be taught and encouraged.
Your example and your calm, firm handling of situations where your child is learning to interact with other people is the model that your kid will follow. The phase of possessiveness is just that- a phase which your child will grow out of – and as they do so they are acquiring social skills that will enhance their enjoyment of living throughout their life
 McDermott CH, Noles NS (2018) The role of age, theory of mind, and linguistic ability in
children’s understanding of ownership. PLoS ONE13(10): e020659
 Noles NS, Gelman SA. You can’t always want what you get: Children’s intuitions about ownership and desire. Cogn Dev. 2014;31:59-68. doi:10.1016/j.cogdev.2014.02.002