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Learning to play nice isn’t always easy!

A mom asked me this question:

“What do I do when my passive preschooler’s aggressive friend hurts her? We love the friend, but I just don’t know what to do in this situation. I don’t want to discipline her, but I don’t want to make what she did seem right.”

I am unusually well-situated to answer this question. My first child was the disciplinarian’s dream. As a preschooler, he was never the aggressor, and I was very tempted to think that the parents of the aggressors were doing something wrong.*

*I will add, in the spirit of full disclosure, one exception: On the first day of preschool, our 18-month-old son bit another child hard enough to break the skin. His teacher was a veteran, and she was not at all concerned. “This is a new experience for him. Let’s wait and see.” It never happened again.

Our daughter, on the other hand, is regularly involved in situations where she has clearly done wrong. This was true from her earliest interactions with other kids. When she was a baby, she inadvertently pulled her brother’s hair one time. When he cried, I imagine that I saw look of amazement on her face. “Wow, that happened when I pulled his hair once. I wonder what will happen the next time?”

And the next. And the next.

Many parents, whether privately or to my face, have believed that her behavior was a product of our parenting.

Obviously, we can’t have it both ways. My husband and I have refined our parenting for our two very different children, but we are the same family, the same two parents, the same house, the same food, water and air. The fact is, kids are different. They start out different, they react differently to their environments, and they end up different people from how they start. Nature vs. nurture is bogus: it’s all a big jumble that we only have a small amount of control over.

So returning to the question at hand: What do you do?

First of all, you can’t parent another child anymore than you’d want anyone else to parent your child. On the other hand, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten about being with other people’s kids is, “Be yourself.” You can’t pretend to be a parent who accepts the behavior, either. So you have to look at it another way.

You have a child who is being mistreated, intentionally or not, by another child. Your main objective is not to change the aggressive child (you can’t), but to make the behavior stop (for the moment).

If you’re faced with a disagreeable child who is out to make your child cry, the choice is easy. End the relationship or at least constrain it.

But most kids who are more aggressive than your passive kid are worth keeping as friends. So my first response was, “Tell the child simply that hitting isn’t allowed in your house, then try to redirect the interactions of the kids so that the aggression doesn’t play out.” This would mean suggesting a game that you know is calming for them, doing something where you are physically between them, or separating them into different activities if the more aggressive child gets overstimulated.

The second piece of advice is harder: Admit that you’re not up to the challenge of taking on this child alone. When the parent of the child asks you again to take her child, make sure that you feel that you’re not being taken advantage of. Or consider that you have a baby as well as your other child, and won’t be able to give proper attention to the two of them. Or consider whether you’ve had enough sleep, whether you and your child are particularly cranky that day, and any other possible factors. Then tell the truth.

“You know, Dana, I’d love to help out, but I don’t think I’d be up to taking care of both of them today. I’m sorry.”


“The baby is taking up so much of my attention right now, I don’t feel like I can take on another child.”

Finally, remember that parents of aggressive children are not usually in the dark about their child’s behavior. Yes, there are those deluded parents, but you already decided not to deal with them, right? Instead, you’re dealing with a stressed-out mom whose third child is a dynamo she didn’t expect, or a dad who actually wanted to be a professional writer but ended up Mr. Mom because his wife makes more money, or whatever other complications your friend has in her life.

I have had parents ask me about my daughter in less than graceful ways, and then I’ve had those parents who did it right. The right way was assume that I knew what kind of kid I had, and that I had developed expertise in dealing with my child. They posed their questions something like this:

“This thing happened when your daughter was at my house. Here’s how I dealt with it. Can you offer me advice for how you would deal with it, or let me know more effective ways of helping her get along with my child?”

When you’re the parent of a difficult child, it is so heartening to have another parent assume that you are trying to do the right thing. It sets your conversation on a positive path when that parent asks for your help rather than demands your child’s compliance.

There is great value in helping your child learn to get along with a variety of people. I had to make a conscious effort to remind myself that it was good for my shy son to be with more active kids, even though he sometimes ended up crying. And every single day, my daughter gets lessons in how to modulate her reactions to stimuli so that she can get along better with other people. I’ve never regretted doing a little work to facilitate their interactions with kids who are different from them. Given how different we are from each other, it’s a good lesson for life.

Posted in Parenting.

3 Responses

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  1. Julie says

    Thank you for reminding me of the words: “This thing happened when your daughter was at my house. Here’s how I dealt with it. Can you offer me advice for how you would deal with it, or let me know more effective ways of helping her get along with my child?” I find it applies well to so much more than aggression. We have many special needs friends of various degree and your words defuse the questions of how to best approach the situation from feeling like an accusation of inadequate parenting.

  2. Brandi says

    I can really relate to this thread. My sensitive/aggressive son puts all kinds of pressure on my friendships with other moms. It takes a lot of understanding not to let it cause hurt feelings on both sides. It’s nice to hear from another mom dealing with the same issues.

  3. Resa says

    Awesome post.

    I recently had to intervene in some mean girls behavior going on in my daughter’s middle school age dance class, and it’s one of the hardest parenting things I’ve ever had to do. I like all of these girls, and it made me queasy to have to go to one of their moms and say “this thing is happening, could you please help with it?” I tried to make it clear that I think her kids are lovely people and that the bullying was a normal consequence of age group dynamics while still conveying that it wasn’t okay. Fortunately the other mom was great and however she handled it with her own kids behind the scenes, everyone is back to being friendly again.

    Nervewracking, though.

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