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Social Stories For Parenting Toddlers

Posted on Posted in Positive Parenting Strategies


There is an unexpected rigidity in toddlers that can make the most patient of people want to pull their hair out. Those moments include but are not limited to when their milk is poured into the wrong cup, the socks they always wear suddenly feel “funny,” or they collapse into a wailing mess of tears because they wanted to do something menial themselves and you had the audacity to do it for them. It is in those moments I’ve even joked about wanting to change my blog name from Parenting from the Heart to Parenting from the Brink of Insanity. While a nice glass of wine at the end of particularly trying toddler days is nice, I am also glad to have a few out-of-the-box parenting techniques to help my kids self-regulate. Sometimes simply a change of scenery or some time in the calm down corner with or without me is the key to resetting. Talking things out can work. But there are also times, their eyes dart and, despite my best efforts, my discipline is falling on deaf ears. Enter in Social Stories to for parenting.

Social Stories was a term coined in the early 90s to refer to text, spoken word, or a series of pictures used as stories to help children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder to self-regulate, anticipate unexpected changes (i.e. a fire alarm at school), understand theory of mind, understand social constructs, and many other life events. When parenting my toddlers, I have chosen to adapt the concept of Social Stories. My version have a creative flair and also include family members as models. Said family member is first portrayed as struggling through the same issue as my child. Then, I mirror the same tale using my child as the protagonist. In my version of Social Stories, my child has difficulty accomplishing a task, but eventually prevails. In this way, I have found Social Stories to be a wonderful tool to parent toddlers through moments of difficulty. These stories give my kids the words they are lacking, convey empathy, help scaffold their mastery of skills just outside of their grasp, help them with self-regulation, and set expectations in a way that is more palatable than typical discipline. Here are two examples of Social Stories used for parenting toddlers that we’ve used in our household and how they worked out.

Going Number 2 On The Potty

When my daughter was potty training, she understood going pee on the potty fairly quickly but completely avoided #2. She would either wait until her diaper was on for bedtime or have an accident. I inferred she was afraid and, therefore, told a story along the lines of:

When Mama was two-years-old, Nana and Grandpa said, “Mama, you’re a big girl now. You’re ready to use the potty.” Then Nana and Grandpa bought Mama panties and a potty and Mama started potty training. It was hard work at first, but slowly, Mama started going pee-pee on the potty all the time. Nana and Grandpa were very proud of Mama. The only problem was Mama was scared to go poo-poo. Sometimes Mama would wait to go in her diaper and sometimes Mama had accidents. Nana would always say to Mama, “That’s okay Mama, everyone has accidents. It’s important you keep trying.” So Mama wanted to try, but she was scared. So she had some more accidents. Nana kept telling Mama that she knew she could do it. Then one day, Mama did go poo-poo on the potty. And from then on, Mama always went pee-pee and poo-poo on the potty.

Now it’s your turn to potty train.

From there, I mirrored the story I told about myself but with my daughter as the person struggling with potty training and then one day getting it. The first time I told this story, my daughter almost stared at me unblinkingly. I probably told the story a dozen more times and shortly thereafter she was successfully potty trained.

An Unexpected Dinner or Situation

The entire inspiration behind the post came last night during Thanksgiving (in Canada we celebrate sooner than the US). Even though my daughter had helped me prep the entire feast, when it came to seeing it all at her place setting, my picky eater was livid to see what was before her. Though I knew she wouldn’t be impressed with what was before her, I didn’t expect utter disgust and upset. We both made our way to the calm down corner until she was ready to return to dinner and omit, “Ew! Gross!” from her vocabulary. As we sat together as her final tears dripped off her chin, I told her this: “Did you know that Uncle Andrew used to get really upset with what Nana made for Thanksgiving?” (Andrew actually liked Thanksgiving, but because he was the pickiest of us, I decided to throw him under the bus.) Social stories have been wonderful in helping me parent my two toddlers. Here is how this particular social story last night went.

Well, Nana made such a nice Thanksgiving dinner, but it was nothing Uncle Andrew had seen before. There were weird things on his plate and so he said, “Ew, gross” to Nana. Nana said, “Uh-oh Uncle, we don’t say, ‘Ew, gross. You need to go in timeout!” Uncle spent time in timeout and again came back to the table and said, “Ew, gross.” So Uncle went back to timeout, again! Then, Nana talked to Uncle and said, “Uncle, you don’t have to like everything on your plate. But I would like you to try everything. And we only use nice words.” So Uncle sat at the table and did good listening. He didn’t try all the foods Nana had given him but he tried some. And it turns out, he actually liked them!

Social Stories are a wonderful tool to empathetically parent toddlers. They give them the words they need, help scaffold their behaviour, and help self-regulation

Again, I then followed the same format putting my daughter and myself as the main characters. She returned to her seat and was pleasant to sit with, but unadventurous with her eating. This was an overall win in my books. Tonight, we had leftovers. She pleasantly sat in her seat but a look of disgust swept over her. She looked up at me, “Can you tell the story about Uncle?” After two rounds of telling the story of Uncle Andrew in timeout, she tried everything on her plate. Yay!

We have also used these sorts of stories for nighttime fears, new transitions, and fighting with a friend at school

Now, I can’t say using Social Stories for parenting has resulted in instant success with anything they’re addressed. However, they have been instrumental in empowering my kids by showing them empathy, giving them the words they need to express themselves, and helping them master more complex behaviour or higher self-regulation.

Do you have any creative or unorthodox ideas for parenting toddlers? Please share below! I can use all the help I can get 🙂

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15 thoughts on “Social Stories For Parenting Toddlers

  1. What a fantastic idea! I could have used this method with my daughter yesterday-she was really testing my limits! I love that your sweet girl was willing to try the stuff on her plate. Honestly, I am going to try this the next time I have an opportunity!

  2. I really enjoy your positive parenting. You always have the most creative and loving ideas. Your social stories are brilliant.

  3. Omg I soooooo needed this today!!! It was almost a 5 hour long string of tantrums last night over EVERYTHING. I honestly couldn’t even…anymore….I haven’t used social stories in awhile. I’ll be bringing them back tonight to hopefully set the stage for a better evening. Thank you! Sharing!

    1. Oh I can certainly relate. It’s funny how we almost forget certain parenting strategies until you hear someone else using them. Thanks for reading xo

  4. I think I should have read this one this morning!! We had a very unsuccessful day from my point of view… a few accidents, no nap, didn’t want to eat dinner… You name it I was dealing with it!! I will try this approach tomorrow if I have a repeat offender.

  5. I saw your scope about this — and as an aside, I could totally relate to what you were talking about having your child in childcare for so long! — and I thought this was a fabulous idea. I used to work with children with ASD, and social stories were so instrumental. I can see how this would also be a great tool for my toddler. I will definitely try it with her!

  6. So happy I finally got a chance to read this – I remember you mentioned it during one of your scopes this past week. Great idea, and I’ll definitely be trying it for sure. Lately when my daughter has been going to bed, I’ve been making a HUGE point to tell her what a great job she did the night before sleeping, and am providing as much positive reinforcement as possible. Maybe this idea could help us too, with getting her to sleep better through the night! And for many other things! 🙂

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