My neighbor and I have preschool-aged sons who have a lot of fun together. But lately, the other boy has been pushing my child when he doesn't get his way. What can I do? His mom is a good friend and the boys are close, but her son is quite a bit bigger and stronger than my son.
No Pushing Please
Dear No Pushing Please,
When a child is frustrated, there are only two possible outcomes: 1) he accepts that he cannot have or do what he would like, or 2) he becomes aggressive toward others ("I hate you, mommy!") or himself ("I'm so stupid!").
If a frustrated child is able to safely offload his upset -- perhaps even by having a cry -- he will find his way toward accepting that he can't have the cookie, the toy, or the undivided attention he seeks. Otherwise, his frustration will turn into aggressive behavior.
In this situation, you should first determine whether your neighbor will work with you to address her son's aggressive behavior. Does she agree that there even is a problem? Some parents have their heads in the sand when it comes to their children’s misbehavior, because they feel guilty or embarrassed to recognize that their little ones aren't perfect after all.
If your neighbor is already aware that her son has a tendency to push or hit when he's upset, you can work together toward implementing some of the ideas below.
But if she claims that her son is never aggressive at home or that your son is probably doing something to provoke her little boy, tread carefully. Start by offering positive comments so she doesn't feel attacked -- for example: The boys had so much fun playing in the treehouse... Johnny is so adorable and appreciative when I bring out snacks! Then ask if you can share your concerns. If she doesn't feel cornered, she will most likely be willing to listen. Describe the specific circumstances when her son has pushed yours, and tell her what you have tried (unsuccessfully) to do to stop the behavior. Don't recite a long list of her son's faults; make it clear that you're interested in problem solving rather than criticizing.
If she's willing, establish a plan you can implement together to get the boys back on track with pain-free playtime. Here are some ideas to consider:
1. Sit both boys down and establish clear expectations for playdates. "It's OK to get mad or frustrated, but it isn't OK to hurt your friend. If you're upset about something, come to the grownup in charge and we'll help you sort it out." While you don't want to encourage tattling, it is important to offer each of the boys a way to get help if things are spiraling out of control.
2. Arrange for the next few playdates to take place at your house so you can supervise the boys more closely. If you sense your neighbor's son revving up or starting to get frustrated, gather both kids for a quiet story, offer a snack, or take them outside to do something physically active. Stay attuned to how they're getting on, and you'll have a better chance of preventing a problem.
3. Take the boys to a neutral location, like the park, so there aren't issues of jealousy or possessiveness (“That's mine!” “But I was playing with it!”).
4. Shorten the playdates. Some children become very excitable when they have a buddy to play with, and impulse control eventually goes out the window. Even if the boys have only played for an hour, end on a positive note so you can build on success.
5. Ensure that neither kid is running on empty. When children are tired or hungry, or they've had lots of sweets but nothing nutritious to eat, they may have more trouble managing the delayed gratification required to take turns or share.
6. Plan more structured get-togethers. Try taking the boys bowling, or out for a game of mini golf. Many children who have trouble managing their behavior in free play do better during focused activities.
If these suggestions don't work, take a playdate break for a few weeks. Let the boys know that you understand how much they enjoy playing together, but that you aren't comfortable having playdates when someone gets hurt. The pause may help your son's friend rein in some of his impulsive tendencies.
Yours in parenting support,
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Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.