My son is a very sweet 9-year-old boy, and we get along very well when it's just the two of us. But when we invite a friend for a playdate, he becomes a different person. He gets overly excited and doesn't listen to me. I sometimes refuse to host playdates because I don't have the courage to go through the stress. How can I handle his need for power in front of his friends while getting him to follow my directions?
It is not unlikely for children to behave one way with family and an entirely different way when friends are around, but that doesn't mean you have to put an end to playdates. Here are my thoughts:
• Look for the underlying cause of the problem. What do you think is behind your son's refusal to take direction from you? Is he too flustered to remember your rules? Unsure about how to keep his friend happy? Trying too hard to impress his buddy by acting tough and cool? Talk with your son about what might be making him forget how to be his usually cooperative self when he has friends around.
• Teach him how to calm down. If your son's excitability is the problem, teach him how to settle himself down. One strategy I teach children is something I call Belly Breathing. Have him put one hand on his chest and one on his belly, inhaling and exhaling so that his lower hand rises and falls as he breathes deeply and slowly. This is a calming exercise that can help him feel less wound up and make better choices.
• Have a plan. Decide in advance how he plans to handle himself during his next playdate when it's time to come down for a snack or clean up his toys, acknowledging how he will deal with his frustration if he doesn't like what you're asking him to do. By discussing and preparing beforehand, you can refer back to whatever agreement the two of you make.
• Take a pause. If your son cannot stick to the agreement you make, kindly let him know that you're going to take a pause on playdates until the two of you can figure out a way to make them work for both of you. Establish very clear expectations for how he is to respond when you ask him to do do something, and put your requests in writing. If he promises that he's ready to try again, see the next tip.
• Begin briefly. When your son believes he is ready to abide by your expectations, let him invite a friend over for a very short playdate -- no longer than one hour. As the saying goes, quit while you're ahead. Even if the kids are having a great time and things are going well, stick to your plan. Better to schedule a follow up playdate for another day than to have things deteriorate.
Many children show off or get a little crazy when they have friends over. By creating a plan with your son, setting clear expectations and helping your son discover ways to remember his manners, you should be able to have playdates -- without the stress! -- very soon.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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