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QUESTION FROM PARENT:
I have a 6 year old super smart daughter. However, every play date or birthday party she goes to ends up in a fight with some other kid, a lot of crying & high drama. It is becoming increasingly painful for me to take her out anywhere. I don't know how to make her get along, help her enjoy these play dates and parties and generally have a good time
RESPONSE FROM Early childhood specialist at Building Healthy Minds and Healthy Families
There are three things that can be helpful in this situation: identifying the cause, considering what needs to be done in the moment of conflict, and having a long term plan.
1) In this particular case, the first thing to look for would be a pattern of behavior. If this is happening during most play dates then consider what the precipitating circumstances might be:
- Look at what happened right before the fight with the other child began. Did she want something the other child had, or did she want a turn first, or did someone take something away from her?
- Consider whether it is directed at a particular child or a certain kind of child, perhaps ones with different temperaments than hers and take precautions to guard against that.
2) During play dates, in the heated moment, speak to your child at eye level, in a calm and gentle way. If you get upset, ask her to apologize or even ignore her behavior, the situation will most likely escalate.
- Reflect what she may be feeling. For example, “I see that you are really mad right now,” or, “I think you really want to play with that toy right this minute” etc.
- Next, try redirecting her toward something else if possible. Distract her until the wave of emotion passes.
- Sometimes it isn’t possible to distract a child down no matter what, try giving her a hug and holding her while talking to her soothingly. If she is unable to calm down remove her from situation and avoid reprimanding in front of her friends. It may make her feel embarrassed she may try to regain control by acting out further.
- Don’t have her apologize immediately. Children often perceive saying, “I am sorry” as having to take full responsibility of their actions when they don’t feel it was entirely their fault.
- Keep in mind that some of these situations can be avoided by preemptive actions so keep a watchful eye on her interactions and if you foresee a situation that may be a trigger for her, distract her with something else or try to resolve the issue before it escalates.
- Keep play dates short and leave before she gets tired or hungry.
3) Next, set some ground rules and help her to problem solve. Have a conversation with her on a day when she is calm and willing to listen.
- Talk to her about your feelings of frustration in such situations, tell her you want to help make these play dates and birthday parties fun and ask her why she thinks she gets upset sometimes (in a non-accusatory way) and what you can do differently as her parent who wants her to be happy.
- Remind her of instances when she got upset and ask her gently what she thinks might have triggered her i.e. help her figure out what her goal might have been (did she want something first etc).
- Point out consequences of her behavior, if someone got hurt or if something broke. Identifying the cause and effect helps children realize why something is wrong and teaches them empathy.
- Encourage her to find specific solutions to those precipitating circumstances and assure her that you will help her implement those solutions if the need arises in the future. For example, if she really wants something right away, ask her friend if she could have it after two minutes rather than having her wait for longer.
- Also, establish a rule that after two reminders and attempts to help her problem solve in the moment, if she is unable to show restraint, that the play date will end. Execute this rule repeatedly until she understands that you are unwilling to compromise on this. It’s important not to get angry while implementing though because it is merely a consequence of the choice she made, not a punishment.
- Provide positive reinforcement if the next play date or birthday party goes smoothly.
Such an approach helps children connect the logical part of their brain (the left hemisphere) with the emotional part of their brain (the right hemisphere). Eventually the ability to rationalize and balance emotions begins to improve. Once your daughter internalizes some of these methods she will be able to control her emotions and reactions more readily and hopefully it will become easier for you to take to her parties and play dates again.
The team behind Building Healthy Minds and Healthy Families provides a comprehensive set of early childhood services based on the disciplines of developmental psychology and behavioral medicine.
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