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Reader question #60: My friend’s child is acting like a @#$%!, do I say something?

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve been growing apart from a close friend of mine for several months, as some changes in my life made it clear to me how little we have in common. Although my friend and I are very different, we’d bonded when our sons were babies. For the past four or so years, our boys have been very good friends, and we’ve watched them grow and change together. They attended the same pre-school for two years and they love one another like brothers.

Recently, my friend’s son’s behavior has changed quite a bit. He used to be very shy and quiet; now he’s become aggressive, bossy and a braggart. He tends to disrupt any play date he attends. Other children, my son included, get riled up by his boisterous behavior and act out much more than usual — and when you’re talking about four year old boys, that’s saying something. Other, mutual friends have noticed this too, as my friend’s son has the same effect on their kids. There’s been a lot of gossip about both mother and son on the playground, and I (and maybe others?) have started to seek out play dates that they aren’t attending.

My question for you is: should I say something to my friend? Our friendship is already waning, and our sons will be going to different kindergartens in the fall. I’m tempted to just let this lie, because a) it’s easier and I’m lazy and b) I don’t think she’d handle criticism, however gentle, of her precious angel very well. But if I were the subject of the gossip, and my kid were the one that people were starting to avoid, I think I’d want to know. What are your thoughts?

Thanks,
Squeamish

I definitely want to throw this one out to the commenters, because I am not a parent, but my instincts are to get together with your friend for a playdate and bring it up with her directly in the form of a question.

Leave out the gossip and the judgment of other people and how he may or may not be affecting your kid’s behavior, and just say “Your kid has been really acting out lately, is there something going on with him?  Is everything okay?”  There is always this temptation in dealing with an uncomfortable conversation to rely on the consensus of the crowd, like, “We’ve all talked and we agree that there is something wrong with you,” but that is NEVER well-received because it becomes about who said what and when and people automatically get really defensive (with reason).  It’s a lot harder to ignore someone who says “I’m concerned about you, I’ve noticed x, y, and z, are you ok?” based on their own observations and experiences.

Because really, the behavior of your kid is not *really* the fault of this woman or her kid. This other kid just unlocked the little monster inside of himself and also the little monster that is inside your kid (despite all of your awesome efforts as a parent, that monster lives in there and wants to come out and plaaaaaaaaaay).  And because in uncomfortable situations, it’s always better to just ask a question and see what the other person thinks than to serve up your theories and judgment.  The other mom might be really sad and frustrated by what’s going on and not know how to deal. The kid might be taking some medication for a medical condition that affects his mood and aggression (For example, a former boss’s kid was on a lot of steroids for a respiratory condition, and it made her super-aggressive and hard to deal with).

If she’s a snippy person who takes concern for her and her child as criticism, she might get snippy and leave in a huff, and then she’ll be out of your life sooner rather than later.  But I don’t think you’ll hurt anything by asking the question, and you can also put that question to the gossipers – “Yeah, I’ve noticed that, too – have you asked her directly what’s going on?  Is everything okay with him?”

I’d be grateful for any parents reading this to chime in with how they would like to be approached if their kid is acting out.

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7 comments
  1. i’m not a parent, but i work with (often behaviorally troubled) elementary-aged children and talk to defensive parents A LOT. forming your concerns as a question is definitely a good call, but i’d tweak the phrasing just slightly:

    1. use the child’s name, not “your kid,” or even anything that refers to the mother at all. this displays knowledge of and concern for an actual person, and sounds less like a criticism of the parent.

    2. offer up one particular incident, rather than a vague phrasing like “acting out lately”. this makes a concrete, specific conversation easier to have, and also makes it harder for his mother to deny there’s a problem. “I saw Johnny throw a handful of legos at Jake earlier today. Have you noticed him struggling with anger at other times?”

    • JenniferP said:

      Thanks for the very specific, non-judgmental, humanizing language to use!

  2. Robiewankenobie said:

    You know, it really depends on the parent. I’m the kind of parent who want to know when my kid is being an asshole, and an offhanded remark at a playdate would be totally cool with me. It’s nice to know when you need to have a talk with junior regarding manners.

    Some parents, however, are really freaked out when they feel like their parenting skills are being judged. You’ve got to figure out whether or not this person falls into column A or column B. From what you’ve said? Column B. If nothing else? This will help flush out whether or not you should continue the friendship.

    For example. There was a woman who would bring her kid a social group I am a part of. She would get there, and assume that people wanted to watch her kid while she socialized. Notsomuch. There was some drinking going on, and lots of not-very-kid-friendly discussion – it made people very uncomfortable. So I, as the only other parent with a kid that age, thought it would be nice for me to say something. I explained that I, as a parent, learned that this wasn’t a kid-friendly group, and suggested that she attend another gathering should she want to bring her kid. At no point did I sound the bad-parent alarm. I even vetted my approach with a couple of people before I approached her. Of course, all hell broke loose.

    That being said, all kids go through phases, and even a sweet kid can be an asshole for awhile. Sometimes kids go through it in Kindergarten? Sometimes it’s Fourth Grade. It’s not always a parent fail, or something major going down in the kid’s life. My close friend has a kid who set off the asshole alarm this year, although he’d been made of awesome until that point. I made an offhanded remark? She was aware of his newfound attitude, and she used the opportunity to tell him to knock it off. No fuss no muss.

    • robiewankenobie said:

      eta…man, that sounded like i suggested that she “go elsewhere.” let me clarify: there are many incarnations of our knitting group. many are kid friendly.

  3. denelian said:

    i’m not a bio-parent, but i’ve raised 2 kids.

    and… while Le Capitan is correct, that this other boy isn’t “making” the other kids do anything, if he’s behaving as badly as i think he is, it’s not any sort of surprise that the other kids are either A) reacting or B) following his lead.
    it’s a subtle difference. but an important distinction.

    another, different approach [if superflous consonant's advice doesn't seem right for you] is to say something along the lines of “My child is doing X” followed by either “he says [or i've observed] that he learned X from your son” -or- “it looks like your son is doing it, too” [seriously, think about which way you want to phrase it - blaming your son may seem like a betrayal of sorts, but it may allow her to actually talk about it since the focus is more on YOUR kid] followed by a “maybe we should work together to fix this” sort of thing. if she doesn’t blow a gasket and wants to work with you, it may indicate that the friendship is stronger than you knew, and help mend it while also mending the behavior.

    BUT – if you really don’t want to continue being friends… and don’t want drama… yeah, doing the slow fade isn’t bad. if she confronts you about it later, you have a good reason you can tell her, along with a “i didn’t want to fight and/or cause drama”

    a note, though – even if you’ve given up the friendship [and WANT to give it up] it’s probably worth the drama to try and help her see that her kid needs something he isn’t getting [or needs to not get something he *IS* getting]. in general, it’s my opinion that the *KID’S* needs come first. if you think saying something will do nothing more than cause drama, slow fade – but if there’s any chance to help the kid… i’m not there, i haven’t seen it. maybe he doesn’t need help. but if he does, you might be the only person able to even try and give it right now.

  4. Squeamish said:

    Thanks to everyone for the excellent advice.

    Captain A, I heartily agree that if I do bring it up (and I think I will) I should do it one on one, and I can’t mention that there’s been any other discussion of her kid or, heaven forfend, her parenting. I also like your suggestion for dealing with the gossip. I need to rise above that as much as possible, as tempting as it can sometimes be to snicker and point fingers.

    superfluous consonants, your idea about choosing one specific incident is great. There’s one I have in mind: we were at a mutual friends’ house last week, and the kid in question was just randomly shoving items (including a clock) off a dresser. I can’t imagine any context in which his mom would find that acceptable, and it might make a good starting place for our discussion.

    Robiewankenobie: Knowing this kid, I agree that it could be a phase, and also that his mom might not realize how bad the behavior has gotten. He’s an only child, and I think she’s fairly strict with him at home. So when he visits others’ homes (or parks or whereever) and she’s not watching as closely, he takes the opportunity to act out. She miiiiiight be ok with having that pointed out.

    denelian, “work together to fix” could work. Like I said, our kids have been friends most of their short lives, so they have learned lots from one another. We have amicably discussed issues before, but there’s never been one that I thought was more a problem with her kid than mine. I should say, I’m not ruling out the fact that I am blinded by parental love/selfishness/denial and that my kid is more of a problem that I’m seeing or admitting to myself. Maybe when I start this discussion, she’ll say, “Welllll, I’ve been wanting to tell you, your kid….” Or, you know, the friendship will go down in flames. One of those.

    Again, thanks for helping, and for giving me a space to hash it out.

  5. JenniferP said:

    Glad that Captain Awkward Enterprises: Home of the Smartest and Best Commenters on the Internet could meet your needs.

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