Dear Dr. Rene,
My son is almost three years old. He is very verbal and cognitive, but seems overwhelmed easily in playgroups. If we are at playgrounds and there are three or more kids nearby, he wants to leave. If an indoor group is loud, or children are misbehaving, he gets extremely upset. He manages better when play is with just one other child, but even that often ends in tears. He hates to leave the house, he says, “let’s just stay home,” even when it’s a place he loves to go. He dislikes other children or adults touching him. He is also an only child and takes after me. While I try not to show it, I don’t like crowds and don’t care for other children being rowdy. Do I continue to put him in these stressful situations?
A Worried Mom
Dear Worried Mom,
I think there is a best answer in the middle. Yes, continue to leave the house and continue to schedule playdates. Leave the house for more low-key activities, think play at the park rather than busy gym class. Plan one-on-one playdates with kids that tend to play well rather than playdates with several children at the same time. One-on-one actually tends to be better for play skills, and there’s no real downside relative to bigger groups. Managing group play becomes more important as he is a bit older.
When things get to busy or loud, give a lot of empathy and step out for a time. When others misbehave, if he is not directly involved, distract him away when you can. If there’s no distraction, talk him through it and let him see the resolution. If he is directly involved, think empathy and wait for the calm. Talk through on the quiet, calm side.
Pulling too far back means no playdates and you never leave the house. Both are important towards social development, but you want to aim for things that may be successful. Just diving in to big groups means he will struggle through and enjoy social less. Aim for the middle.