Dear Dr. Rene,
I am feeling stuck in a difficult situation. I have three children under five years old, and have been fortunate to be friends with our neighbor who has four children, three in the same age range. It was a great situation, we live so close and the kids enjoyed playing together. Unfortunately, one of her children has been diagnosed with special needs and has become increasingly aggressive towards my children in the last year. When the kids first became friends, he was only aggressive towards his own siblings, but now it is towards my kids, and it’s often. Recently, he pushes, scratches, headbutts, hits or kicks my oldest every time they play together. The behavior is impulsive and erratic, most times my child isn’t doing anything to provoke, and it can happen with an adult right beside them. One minute they are playing, the next he is pushing or scratching. The most frustrating thing is that my oldest (who has been the repeated victim) head butted his own younger sibling yesterday, something I never thought would happen. I don’t want my children hurt, and I don’t want them learning the behavior. I am also fearful this child is really going to hurt someone. My concern is such that I don’t want my children to play with this aggressive child. How do I handle things with the neighbor? What do I tell my son about the aggression, so he’s not confused by being hurt by a playmate and doesn’t learn the bad behavior? Also, I am fine with the other children in the family, they all play nicely. Can I invite just them? We’ve become good friends with the neighbors ourselves and go out together and celebrate occasions together. Is there a way to keep the other relationships and avoid play with the one who is having such difficulty and seems to be getting worse?
Concerned Mom of Three
There are so many questions here with lots of options. Your primary concern is and should be your own children, their safety and what they are learning from these incidents. Part of the message they are getting rests in the follow-up that happens when this child is aggressive. Are you or the other parent addressing the behavior? Some parents give up as it happens so often and chalk it up to how kids play. If this is the case, your child is learning that behavior gets a pass. If the mom is addressing well each time with consequences and coaching how to play nicely often, hopefully your child is also seeing this piece to understand it is an unwanted or unacceptable behavior. If you continue to play as things are, I think you’ll need to address with the mom how this should be handled each time. Ask that it be consistently addressed when the children are playing together. Be sure you are both comfortable with being able to follow through. Even with a consistent follow through, your children are learning from his behavior. That they see aggression in play makes it more available as a behavior to try themselves.
If you choose to continue the play, you might try to change the play that is available. Children tend to be more aggressive in unstructured open play. You might limit play to field trips, bowling or movies. When they are at the house, you might invite them over for painting on big paper then snack and goodbyes. The idea is to fill their time rather than just go play. We had a relative whose child was particularly aggressive when the girls were little. We talked about it and for a few years opted to just get together for outings rather than open play. Honestly, there were hurt feelings, but a few years later we were able to go back to regular play.
You might also have one parent “shadow” him. In our preschool shadowing would mean one teacher stays within arms reach. This is so they might see it coming and be able to intervene early or at least stop it quickly if it starts. The idea would be to allow play but be watching and close at all times.
You and mom might also look for triggers and cues for the aggression. While you say it seems to happen out of the blue, likely there are things that set him off and signs he gives before the aggression. Triggers might be another child having a toy he wants, being told no, very close physical play or having to wait. Triggers are the things that set him off, and, if you can learn what they are, you have a better chance to intervene. Cues are signs he’s about to be aggressive. Some children get tense shoulders, others get a wild look in their eyes or their voice goes up a notch. The idea is to look and listen for cues and intervene on the cue rather than the behavior that follows.
All this is a lot of effort and assumes you are going to continue the play. I think you are also perfectly reasonable to decide to end the play at least for now. If this is the case, you can offer to maintain the play with the other children in the family, but be prepared for the mom to decline. It may be too difficult for her to separate her children this way. You can also suggest keeping the parent relationship going, but again this may be declined.
Either way you go with the above, you will have to speak with the mom. When you do, this avoid blaming her or her children. Talk about your concerns for the safety of all, that your children have started being more aggressive with each other recently, and you are working to curb that. Or, you could just opt to let this whole relationship go quietly. This means to stop making the invites and politely decline when invitations are made. Eventually, she may push you for an explanation and giving that is up to you.
I hope something in here is helpful.
Sincerely, Dr. Rene