Children can be passionately possessive of a toy, and a couple brain-based reasons are behind their feelings of ownership.
First, emotional attachment releases opioids in the brain—even if the attachment is to a toy. A child gets a sense of well-being when playing with that special something. If the toy is taken away for any reason, whether by a parent, sibling, or friend, the child may tumble into a brain state of opioid withdrawal. The result may be emotional pain followed by distress and crying.
Second, the toy is part of the child’s territory. When the toy is taken, it feels like an invasion of his or her territory. This invasion triggers the more primitive part of the brain and the release of vasopressin, a brain chemical linked to aggression. Taken together, the pain, rage, and territorial brain chemicals can cause a child to move rapidly into primitive fight mode.
Since a child in this state is in real pain, with a brain and body flooded with a powerful chemical composition, he or she will need help and compassion when having to share a toy. A parent’s calm brain and body can help moderate the primitive response. The pain and distress can then be short-lived, and a teachable moment is offered.
If your child is young, without the ability to find a solution, you may need to find one for him or her while using a calm voice. With older children, you can be the moderator who gives support as they try to negotiate. This is an opportunity to teach them about trading toys or taking turns with toys, whether you are initiating the solution or encouraging resolution. When you see children negotiate and compromise, give them lots of praise.
More to consider: Help them find a solution . . .
Teach your children how to trade and take turns. “So, you both want to play with the truck at the same time. Is there anything else one of you could play with for awhile and then trade? Do you need me to help you take turns?”
When you spend time playing with your children, you can model how to trade and take turns. “Let’s trade time with the truck and the ambulance. Which one do you want first?”
If your children are having a hard time problem solving about who gets to play when with a toy, you can take away the toy. “I am putting this toy away until you can figure out a way to share it.” Having the toy disappear may help children move from intense, primitive feelings to thinking.
You can also have a shelf for each child with a limited number of toys that are off-limits to others unless they first get permission from the owner. This can teach children ownership skills, how to care for special things, and respect for others.
Your child will need your help to develop the sophisticated human skills of negotiation and compromise. Your own calm body and brain will be your ally.