Parent to Parent: When Play Dates Go Wrong

Sometimes, your child has a friend over, and things don’t go well.

That happened at our house recently. For the first hour of the visit, I heard heated voices, and finally, my child reported that the friends just could not get along. We sat for a while, working to come up with something they could both enjoy (besides “baking and frosting cookies,” but nice try), and eventually we did, but it was still an afternoon marked by constant tussles and not much fun.

When I dropped the friend off, my fellow mother came out onto the driveway. “How’d it go?”

I had been thinking about that moment the whole ride over. Should I say something? What? I didn’t want to damage the children’s friendship, which I perceived as slightly battered but certainly not broken. And I didn’t want to damage our friendship, either.

When things go wrong between your child and another on your watch, is it your job to give the other parent the play-by-play? Silence is generally golden in this instance, Andrea Nair, psychotherapist and parenting educator, said. “I don’t talk to the other parent unless it was something I really couldn’t handle, or unless it’s at the point where I”m going to stop inviting the child over.” Even then, she said, if the relationship isn’t close, the best tactic may be just to say, “Our children aren’t really getting along any more.” These are conversations that can too easily go wrong, as parents get defensive.

If you do need to talk to the other parent, Ms. Nair suggests a neutral, problem-solving approach: “Here’s what happened today, here’s how I handled it. Is that O.K. with you?” Or: “Our kids seem to be having trouble together. Can we come up with something to try next time?”

In this case, I decided to put it out there — not because we hadn’t handled it, or even because it had been that bad, but because my friend had asked, on several other occasions, if I would please tell her if there were problems. Because I knew (after several years’ acquaintance) that she meant it. And because I have a child who has more than once been returned from a friend’s house by a fellow parent with a shell-shocked expression — and never asked over again. I’d rather know (and in truth, I already know, but specifics can help), and I suspected my friend felt the same way.

Fortunately, I was right. We had a good laugh over the whole thing, and parted with some good strategies on both sides. But I still had to take a deep breath before plunging into that conversation.

That’s probably a good thing. Sometimes it’s tempting for parents to hash over every incident between friends, and sometimes our motives are not so clear. If what you’re saying isn’t “I really don’t know what to do, and I’d like our children to stay friends,” then it might come across as “do you know what a jerk your child can be?” or worse, “why haven’t you taught your kid better?” And if you’re not really looking for solutions, that might really be what you’re saying. That’s not a conversation that is ever going to end well.

The best practice? Have these conversations only when it would be more difficult, in the long run, if you didn’t have them. When that’s the case, don’t avoid the conversation or the other family. It may be awkward at first, Ms. Nair said, “but you’ll probably recover.” If we try to keep a spirit of collaboration alive, we dramatically increase the odds that both friendships will survive as well.

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5 Ways You Can Teach Emotional Intelligence & Social Skills Every Day

“When they were fighting over ownership of something I would say ‘Jacob, say… ‘Excuse me Sarah, when you’re finished may I have a turn please?’’ and then wait for him to repeat my words. And then I would turn to Sarah and say ‘Sarah, say… ‘Sure, Jacob.’ I did this many, many, many times and then one day to my delight I was cooking dinner and overheard them use these exact words unprompted to resolve an issue… It was a proud moment : )” – Deanne

How do children learn social and emotional intelligence skills? Practice, practice, practice. Parents have to explain, model, and repeat themselves, over and over. It can seem endless. But there are ways to help children learn faster, by taking advantage of the problems that come up in every family on a daily basis. Next time there’s a problem, think of it as a teachable moment.

1. Talk about feelings. Research shows that when parents reflect with their children about what everyone in the family feels and needs, children become more sensitive and emotionally generous to others, as well as more likely to understand another’s point of view. This is true even when children are very young; when mothers talk to their toddlers about what the baby might be feeling, the toddler develops more empathy for the baby and is less jealous. Questions work better than lectures: “I wonder why she’s crying? What do you think she needs?”

2. Ask questions about feelings, needs, wants, and choices. Any time your child makes a poor choice, you can ask questions to help him learn from his experience. Be sure to keep the exchange low-key; no one can learn when they feel on the defensive. These kinds of questions are useful from toddlerhood (when your child grabs a toy from a friend) right through the teen years (when your kid gets drunk with his buddies). You don’t have to use all these questions. You’re just helping your child reflect on what drove him to make his choice, and how that choice worked out for him.

  • “How did you feel?”
  • “What did you want?”
  • “What did you do?”
  • “How did that work out?”
  • “Did you get what you wanted?”
  • “Did the other person get what he wanted?”
  • “How do you think he felt?”
  • “Would you do the same thing next time, or do you think you might try something different?”
  • “What do you think you might try?”
  • “What might happen then?”


Listen, nod, repeat to be sure you understand. Stay warm and non-judgmental. Keep your sense of humor, so when your child says “Next time I’ll smash him!” you can simply answer “Hmmm….what might happen then?” Try not to jump in to evaluate or lecture. Reflection is how children develop integrity and judgment. Good judgment often develops from bad experience.

3. Model “I” statements, which means expressing what you need, rather than judging or attacking someone else.  So, for instance, when your child says “Well, you’re stupid, too!” to her friend, you might teach her to say “I don’t like it when you call me names.”

One formula for “I” statements is to describe what you feel, what you need, and how you see the situation. You might follow that up with a request that the other person take a specific action. “I feel______ because I want (or need) _________and I observe that _________.” So, for instance,

“I feel worried because I want to get there on time and I see that you aren’t ready to leave yet….Please put on your shoes.”

4. Model pro-social behavior. The way the adults in the home relate to each other sets a powerful example for the children. Use that to your advantage by role-playing how you’d like your children to treat each other. For instance, you might say to your partner “There’s only one banana left, shall we split it?”  Or model how to set limits respectfully, by saying to your partner “Excuse me, I was using that. You can have it as soon as I’m done” with a smile and a hug.

5. Don’t expect to be perfect, and don’t expect your child to be. Once we let go of being right and aim for being love instead, we get a lot more perfect. Talk at dinner about a mistake you made today. Open up room for your child to admit mistakes and repair. Model apologizing and self-forgiveness. You’ll see everyone in your family becoming more emotionally generous.

Of course, you’ll still have to repeat yourself incessantly. But you’ll raise a human who can advocate for his or her own needs while respecting the needs of others. That’s the kind of person we need more of in the world.  And it’s worth a little repetition.

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11 Things to Remember When Your Child Gets Angry

When our kids get angry, it pushes buttons for most of us.  We’re not perfect, but we try to be loving parents.  Why is our child lashing out like this?

Many parents send an angry child to her room to “calm down.”  After all, what else can we do? We certainly can’t reason with her when she’s furious. It’s no time to teach lessons or ask for an apology. She needs to calm down.

If we send him to his room, he will indeed calm down, eventually. He’ll also have gotten a clear message that his anger is unacceptable, and that he’s on his own when it comes to managing his big scary feelings–we don’t know how to help him. He won’t have worked through whatever led to his anger. Instead, he’ll have stuffed the anger, so it’s no longer under conscious control, and will burst out again soon. No wonder so many of us develop anger-management issues, whether that means we yell at our kids, throw tantrums with our spouse, or overeat to avoid acknowledging angry feelings.

What can we do instead? We can help our kids learn to manage their anger responsibly. That begins with accepting anger — without acting on it.

This is one of the most critical tasks of childhood–learning to tolerate the wounds of everyday life without moving into reactive anger. People who can do this are able to resolve challenges more constructively. We call them emotionally intelligent.

Kids learn emotional intelligence when we teach them that all their feelings are okay, but it’s their job to control their actions. How?

When your child gets angry:

1. Take a deep breath. Remind yourself that there is no emergency.  Keep yourself from moving into fight or flight. This will help calm your child, and model emotional regulation.

2. Remind yourself that tantrums are nature’s way of helping small people let off steamTheir brains are still developing and they don’t yet have the neural pathways to control themselves as we do.  (And please note that we don’t always regulate our anger very well, even as adults!)

The best way to help children develop those neural pathways is to offer empathy, while they’re angry and at other times. It’s ok–good, actually–for your child to express those tangled, angry, hurt feelings. After we support kids through a tantrum, they feel closer to us and more trusting.  They feel less wound-up inside, so they can be more emotionally generous. They aren’t as rigid and demanding.

3. Remember that anger comes from our “fight, flight or freeze” response. That means it’s a defense against threat. Occasionally that threat is outside us, for instance, when a big brother knocks down a block tower. But usually it isn’t. We see threats outside us because we’re carrying around old stuffed emotions like hurt, fear or sadness. Whatever’s happening in the moment triggers those old feelings, and we go into fight mode to try to stuff them down again.

Losses and disappointments can feel like the end of the world to a child, and kids will do anything to fend off these intolerable feelings, so they cry and rage and lash out.  If they feel safe expressing their anger,  and we meet that anger with compassion, their anger will begin to melt.  That’s when they can access the more upsetting feelings underneath.

So while we accept our child’s anger, it isn’t the anger that is healing.  It’s the expression of the tears and fears beneath the anger that washes out the hurt and sadness and makes the anger vanish, because it’s no longer necessary as a defense.

4. Don’t talk except to empathize and reassure her that she’s safe. Don’t try to teach, reason or explain. When she’s awash in adrenaline and other fight or flight reactions is not the time to explain why she can’t have what she wants, or get her to admit that she actually loves her little sister. Just acknowledge how upset she is: “You are so upset about this…I’m sorry it’s so hard.”

5. Set whatever limits are necessary to keep everyone safe, while acknowledging the anger and staying compassionate. “You’re so mad! You can be as mad as you want, but hitting is not ok, no matter how upset you are.  You can stomp to show me how mad you are, but I won’t let you hit me.” 

6. Set limits on actions only, not on feelings.  The more compassionate you can be, the more likely your child will find his way to the tears and fears under the anger: “Oh, Sweetie, I’m sorry this is so hard…You’re saying I never understand you…that must feel so terrible and lonely.”  You don’t have to agree or argue. Just acknowledge his truth in the moment.Once he feels heard, his truth will shift.

7. Keep yourself safe.  Kids often benefit from pushing against us, so if you can tolerate it and stay compassionate, that’s fine to allow. But if your child is hitting you, move away. If she pursues you, hold her wrist and say “I don’t think I want that angry fist so close to me.  I see how angry you are.  You can hit the pillow I’m holding, or push against my hands, but I won’t let you hurt me.”  Kids don’t really want to hurt us — it scares them and makes them feel guilty. Most of the time, when we move into compassion and they feel heard, kids stop hitting us and start crying.

8. Stay as close as you can.  Your child needs an accepting witness who loves him even when he’s angry.  If you need to move away to stay safe, tell him “I won’t let you hurt me, so I’m moving back a bit, but I am right here. Whenever you’re ready for a hug, I’m right here.” If he yells at you to “Go away!” say “You’re telling me to go away, so I am moving back a step, ok?  I won’t leave you alone with these scary feelings, but I will move back.”

9. Don’t try to evaluate whether he’s over-reacting.  Of course he’s over-reacting! But remember that children experience daily hurts and fears that they can’t verbalize and that we don’t even notice.  They store them up and then look for an opportunity to “discharge” them.  So if your kid has a meltdown over the blue cup and you really can’t go right now to get the red cup out of the car, it’s ok to just lovingly welcome his meltdown. Most of the time, it wasn’t about the blue cup, or whatever he’s demanding. When children get whiny and impossible to please, they usually just need to cry.

10. Acknowledging her anger will help her calm down a bit. Then help her get under the anger by softening yourself.  If you can really feel compassion for this struggling young person, she’ll feel it and respond. Don’t analyze, just empathize.  “You really wanted that; I’m so sorry, Sweetie.” Once you recognize the feelings under the anger, she will probably pause and stop lashing out. You’ll see some vulnerability or even tears.  You can help her surface those feelings by focusing again–repeatedly–on the original trigger:  “I’m so sorry you can’t have the _____ you want, Sweetie. I’m sorry this is so hard.”  When our loving compassion meets her wound, that’s when she collapses into our arms for a good cry. And all those upset feelings evaporate.

11. AFTER he’s calmed down, you can talk. Don’t start by lecturing. Tell a story to help him put this big wave of emotion in context. “Those were some big feelings…everyone needs to cry sometimes…You wanted….I said no…You were very disappointed…You got so angry….Under the anger, you were so sad and disappointed….Thank you for showing me how you felt….”  If he just wants to change the subject, let him. You can circle back to bring closure later in the day or at bedtime, while you’re snuggling.

12. What about teaching? You don’t have to do as much as you think. Your child knows what she did was wrong. It was those big feelings that made her feel like it was an emergency, and necessary to break the rule. By helping her with the emotions, you’re making a repeat infraction less likely.

Wait until after the emotional closure, and then keep it simple. Recognize that part of her wants to make a better choice next time, and align with that part. Be sure to give her a chance to practice a better solution to her problem. “When we get really angry, like you were angry at your sister, we forget how much we love the other person. They look like they’re our enemy. Right? You were so very mad at her. We all get mad like that and when we are very mad, we feel like hitting. But if we do, later we’re sorry that we hurt someone. We wish we could have used our words. What could you have said or done, instead of hitting?”

Accepting emotions like this is the beginning of resilience. Gradually, your child will internalize the ability to weather disappointment, and learn that while he can’t always get what he wants, he can always get something better — someone who loves and accepts all of him, including the yucky parts like rage and disappointment. He’ll have learned that emotions aren’t dangerous–they can be tolerated without acting on them, and they pass. Gradually, he’ll learn to to verbalize his feelings even when he’s furious.

You’ll have taught him how to manage his emotions.  And you’ll have strengthened, rather than eroded, your bond with him.  All by taking a deep breath and staying compassionate in the face of rage.  Sounds saintly, I know, and you won’t always be able to pull it off.  But every time you do, you’ll be making a small miracle.

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Surviving Shots: 12 Tips for Parents and Kids

In our family, ’tis the season for flu shots; in every family, shots happen — at nearly every trip to the doctor until age 4, and at intervals thereafter. Rare is the child who looks forward to the appearance of the needle, but there are things parents can do to make the experience of getting a shot easier, and reduce a child’s anxiety before the fact, and in anticipation of the next shot.

Amy Baxter, a pediatric emergency physician, pain researcher and the inventor of Buzzy, a reusable, natural personal pain relief device, has dedicated the second half of her career to preventing and relieving needle fear in children. “For most kids, needle fear comes from a traumatic experience between ages 4 and 6,” she says. Some children develop anxiety around shots even earlier. “Children who fear needles grow up to be adults who don’t get flu shots or update their own vaccinations, are less likely to donate blood, and in really severe cases, refuse insulin or delay diagnosis because they’re afraid to go for regular checkups.”

Dr. Baxter suggested 12 things parents can do to help prevent a child from developing a fear of needles, or help a child who is already fearful.

1. Don’t threaten. “You’d be surprised how many parents come to the doctor’s office and say to their child, ‘if you’re not good, you’re going to get a shot!’”

2. Don’t lie. Don’t tell your child “it won’t hurt,” or assure her that you “love getting shots” or lie about whether a shot is in the offing before or during a pediatric visit.

3. Do be warm, but matter-of-fact. Listen to the concerns of your child, but don’t leave the door open for any possibility of not getting a shot. Say, “I know you’re afraid, but we can make this easier.”

4. Do make a plan if your child is already anxious. Talk with your child about what you’re going to do if she needs an injection. Consider topical anesthetic or bringing distraction materials. Practice taking deep breaths.

5. Do use distractions. Counting and visual activities are the most effective. Look for phone or tablet games where children need to move or find things. Count ceiling tiles, or how many letters there are in a sentence.

6. Do offer sweets. For infants and younger children in particular, nursing or drinking cold apple juice right when they get the shot stimulates oral distraction. Older children can have something they don’t usually have as a treat during the injection.

7. Do try a topical anesthetic. Apply, then put Glad Press ‘n Seal over the medication — it really sticks to skin.
You can also give ibuprofen an hour before the visit.

8. Do sit up. When young children are sitting on a parent’s lap, they show less distress over a shot than when they’re held down and lying flat. A good position for an anxious child is straddling a parent’s lap in a hug.

9. Do space out shots if that makes sense for your child. The more successful shots, the less afraid they’ll be later. For some children it makes sense to do shots one at a time.

10. Do invite your child’s participation. Did the topical anesthetic or the distraction help? What could you do next time?

11. Do ask about shot order. For young children, distress is less if they get the least painful shot first. For adolescents, the more painful shot should come first.

12. Finally, do speak up. Advocate for your children, Dr. Baxter says. Ask for time to help your child, ask to hold or nurse your child. Many pediatric offices just want to get the shots done as fast as possible, but it’s important that children have a positive experience now, so that they’re more likely to have a good health care experience for the rest of their lives.

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