#1142: “Your child’s emotions are not my child’s problem to manage.”

Hello Captain:

There’s a bit of tedious backstory to this, and a few other co-problems (which I think I have some scripts and strategies for, thanks to your incredibly useful archive of GSF/friendship posts). But the main gist is:

Our child (Anna) has a very good Friend (Elsa). They are both 4-5 years old, if that helps. I first met my child’s friend’s mother (Juno) at playgroup, and we bonded over shared hobbies and interests. It helped hugely that the kids really got along, and for the most part, as parents, we shared many parenting values. The problem is the one parenting value we don’t share.

Elsa is incredibly sensitive. And her mother (Juno) makes it my child’s job to manage her child’s emotions. For example, here’s what typically happens:

The children are playing rambunctiously and my child gets hurt – in a trifling way (a bump, scratch etc) and through no real fault of anyone. It happens! That’s life.

My kid gets sad, mad and sometimes, both. Wailing ensues. This is also normal, and I tend to respond by validating the feelings (You feel hurt/Bumping your knee is pretty ouchie sometimes!/etc) and offering a cuddle.

The Elsa gets upset that my kid is upset. Sometimes, Anna is inconsolable (wailing too hard to make any sense, again, this is normal and understandable). Elsa then begins to wail EVEN HARDER (“I tried to say sorry and Anna didn’t stop crying!”) like, Elsa gets upset because my kid is upset. This is – a bit much when it’s all going off and I haven’t quite finished my coffee – but also understandable. Elsa is very empathetic and that’s a great thing! I should also note here that it happens a lot. Like every play date. Over many minor events.

However, this is the problem. The mother of the kid (Juno) takes it upon herself to fix her kid’s (Elsa) emotions by sort of shaming my kid (Anna) into accepting an apology, or comforting her kid. Juno tells elsa to “go tell your friend how she made you feel sad” and “if you’re feeling upset, you should tell your friend how you feel”. She makes the situation all about Elsa, and Elsa’s emotions and how we restore Elsa to happiness. I’m like – hey my kid got hurt! Let her be!

Typing this out, it maybe doesn’t sound as bad as it is in the moment. But it’s hard to express how this is TOO MUCH for a wailing 4yo to process.

I want to yell HEY KNOCK IT OFF. YOUR KID’S EMOTIONS ARE NOT MY CHILD’S TO MANAGE. I mean, I am trying not to raise an asshole – in fact, I’m pretty sure my kid is not one. She’s not perfect, but she’s trying! We talk a lot of about being kind and considerate. But in the moment, when my kid is in pain, is maybe not the time for a guilt trip. And I do not think it’s a good idea to teach your kid how to guilt trip their friends into making them feel better! To me, this smacks of manipulation.

Yet, when it’s all chaos and tears seems a really bad time to also add to the fire. So please help. Is this a big deal? And if it is, do you have any scripts for me to use in the moment to deflect Juno’s attempts to guilt trip my child without fanning the emotional flames of the situation? And any scripts to talk about it afterwards? I wasn’t raised w great boundaries and feelings talking skills, so I’ve largely through therapy, your blog, and hard life experience taught myself as an adult to do all this. And now I’m lost.

And here is some of the tedious backstory. My friend Juno has battled social anxiety and depression, and has terrible boundaries/communication skills. I am trying to fade out the friendship – which in itself is a challenge due to small town/tight knit social group/many overlapping hobbies/no way to actually end the friendship. But I am trying to preserve contact for the sake of the kids (and the husbands, who also like hanging out a lot). Previous attempts to talk about the issues (my friend has a tendency to sulk/storm off/dole out the silent treatment/expect everyone to manage HER emotions) have resulted in some super awkward and unproductive circular conversations.

For example:
Me: Storming off and taking the car keys was not cool. And then not texting us to say what you did was even less cool.
Her: I can’t control my emotions. I was upset.
Me: OK, I’m sorry you were upset. But storming off without even a text is still not cool.
Her: I was upset!
Me: ….

(That was the day I decided that this friendship wasn’t as awesome as I had thought. And that she wouldn’t be allowed to watch my kid again, ever.)

So I foresee that a calm, productive post mortem of our parenting techniques is unlikely to happen. Still, I’d like to try, as moving town is not an option lol. I have to find a way to make it work. Or if not work, protect my child/descalate situations as needed.

Hello! I think adults also need to learn that when you’ve hurt someone, that person might need a second to feel their feelings before they have to deal with your apology, so, thank you for this question.

Also, good news, I have taken your friendship to my Council of Mom Friends, and they had much wisdom, summed up here:

General Friendship-That-Would-Not-Exist-But-For-Small-Kids Wisdom:

  1. Does Anna have the same amount of bumps/tumbles with Elsa as she does with other kids? Not all kids play together so well, or play together well doing certain activities. If this is happening a lot, it might be time for a break anyway, or definitely for a revamping of what y’all do, like, maybe Elsa is a good friend for crafts or quieter stuff but not for the playground/park/wrasslin’ sort of play for a while.
  2. It’s okay not to let 4-5 year olds dictate your social life. If you want to pull back on the whole friendship with Juno, the kids will still run into each other at school and activities, especially as they get older, without you having to spend so much time with Juno.
  3. If you still want to do playdates, THEIR DADS, THEIR DADS WHO LIKE EACH OTHER can take them for those playdates. If what’s happening is that you are getting the sucky playdates with Juno and the dudes are going out for beers and fun grownup things, you can reverse that trend right quick.

Wisdom for when the awkward thing happens (Anna is hurt and crying, Elsa is also crying, Juno prompts Elsa to apologize):

  1. Separate them! Take Anna for a little walk to another part of the playground and let her cry. Bar Elsa or Juno from following, like, “Apologies are great! I’m sure she knows you didn’t mean it. But Anna needs a second to just feel sad, so, let’s leave her alone.”
  2. Or you can say right to Elsa, “You feel bad that Anna got hurt. Anna will be okay! She needs a few minutes to cry, and then she’ll be ready to play again.” 
  3. You can tell Juno what you’re doing, like, “I am really working on encouraging Anna to take some time ON HER OWN to take a breather and get ready to play again” by way of clarifying why you enforced some solo time.
  4. Tell Juno what you told us! “Hey, Anna needs some space for a minute – she can’t really process apologies right now! I’m gonna take her for a little walk, we’ll be back in a few minutes.” Then go give Anna some kisses (a drink of water, a trip to the potty) and let Juno calm Elsa (and herself, mostly herself) down herself.

Given the history with you & Juno, this is one of those situations where a conversation or two that clears the air or deals with the general dynamic between the parents isn’t really going to work (or even happen), so it’s all about changing the circumstances in the moment to protect your kid. The goal is “small doses interactions that are less fraught” (vs. repairing a friendship). You got this!

Edited to Add: Addendum from the LW:

“Just one thing. I guess I wasn’t clear on how sometimes this dynamic plays out as well with non physical hurts (ie, Elsa will cry if say Anna rejects a hug, or won’t play dolls etc). Elsa continues to get coached on taking her hurt feelings to Anna. And I was hoping for perhaps a usable explanation of why doing that isn’t a good thing! (Is it a bad thing? Tell me if I’m making a mountain of a molehill here.) I am awkward and not the best at all this, and I don’t have anything to say about this other than “I don’t think you should teach your kid to manipulate mine!” which of course will go over like a lead balloon. I mean, yes, we should all talk about our feelings! But your kid’s hurt feelings aren’t necessarily mine or my kid’s to fix, right? Or am I wrong? 

Sorry to be the painful person who asks for a second round of advice, but I need to know if I’m being the asshole here. “

U r not the asshole!

I’d keep going with a practice of “Hey, Anna doesn’t have to play dolls or hug if she doesn’t want to” and separating them for a bit if you need to. One of the ways to circumvent emotional manipulation is to hold firm on boundaries, like, “I need what I need – I’m not doing it to make you sad, but if you are a little sad, I can live with that. I’ll still have to take care of myself around what I need.” That’s kinda complex for little kids to absorb, but that’s really what’s at play here – Nobody wants Elsa to be sad, but if she is sad for a second, it’s not Anna’s job to fix it. It’s okay to be sad for a minute. You’re creating space for that to be true.

However, hugging is actually a great opportunity to frame the conversation around consent, so if you do want to talk to Juno, wait for the next time that specific thing happens and then say “Hey, I understand that you want to encourage them to work it out, but when Anna doesn’t want to hug and you want her to comfort Elsa about that it’s not cool! I’m trying to teach Anna about consent, and one part of that is that she doesn’t have to hug anyone if she doesn’t want to. Help me out here, and remind Elsa to give Anna a little space.” 

If Juno gets it and things get better, they get better, and if she won’t agree to that or melts down and fights with you, then you have that whole excuse to end or take a giant break from even trying to be friends that you were looking for.

Comment-wise, I’d like to keep the discussion very focused. Can we hear from parents and teachers who work with small kids, and let everyone else take a step back today? Thank you.


218 thoughts on “#1142: “Your child’s emotions are not my child’s problem to manage.”

  1. Bonus parent, former daycare worker, former elementary school teacher, and long-ago babysitter here to support the script where LW tells *everyone* that Anna needs some time to process her own feelings before she can move on to next steps like apologies or problem-solving. It’s just as important for Anna to hear LW have her back on this as it is for Juno and Elsa to be given a boundary to respect.

    In addition to the suggestions provide by CA and the Council o’ Caregivers, is there maybe a third, more stable, parent/kid combo who could be included for some of these play dates? Adding more people ups the amount of planning and emotional energy required, but their calming influence might be worth it.

    1. Parent here, babysat a lot, and subbed in a preschool a long time ago– I agree with Chelle that adding one or two other kids to these playdates would be really helpful! Playdates with only two kids and two moms can be intense. Also, could you do drop-off playdates? Those are pretty popular in my neighborhood starting at age 4 or so.

      1. Drop-off playdates might could work under some circumstances, but I don’t think they’re a good option for LW, who has said based on Juno’s particular flaws that Juno is not someone LW feels comfortable leaving Anna alone with. LW’s options are to try to orchestrate the situation so that only LW, never Juno, is left alone with the children, or to see Juno during the playdates. And I’m extrapolating, but Juno doesn’t strike me as someone who lets go a lot. Of friendships or of her kid.

        1. That’s a good point! I missed that line in the letter. I’ll update my recs to be short playdates (30 minutes max) OR longer playdates with other children.

        2. It would be nice if the drop-off playdate could be that Juno leaves Elsa with LW and Anna, but the odds of Juno agreeing to that are low, so … there are other friends. A five-year-old is probably not curating her lifelong friend group. Maybe Anna needs to be otherwise engaged for a little while.

    2. A third parent might also be able to redirect Elsa when Juno is obviously not capable/willing to do so. I fully realize that would NOT be the responsibility of that adult, but if he or she were willing it might help in the moment so you don’t have to play both roles (comforter of Anna and redirector of Elsa).

  2. Something I do when giving direction to other people’s kids is to say “Whoops!” at the beginning. Say a bigger kid at the playground just picked up my 2 year old and started hauling him off somewhere, I’ll go, “Whoops, he doesn’t like that! Put him down, please.” I do it to create a sense that it was an accident / the other kid didn’t mean to do anything wrong (esp. if they were following a direction given by their own parent) / I’m not chastising them, just, oops! Let’s not!

    1. Totally! Love this. Kids aren’t thinking about the right or wrong of things, but letting them know when boundaries are broken with just a word is magical. I’m going to use this!

  3. All of the yes to letting their Dads who like each other arrange the Play Dates. All of it!!!!

    I am incredibly introverted so DH does A LOT of play dates for our littles (who are too young to go alone). They have fun, he gets to chat with other parents, I get to be alone. Dads are great play date organizers. (And they get lots of kudos from random old ladies for taking their kids to the playground *eye roll*)

  4. I’m a teacher, early years worker and stepmother. It’s not healthy for Juno to insist that LW’s daughter negates her own feelings, wants and needs for the other child, and LW is not an Awful Person to want to cut this behaviour out. Juno should be teaching her daughter resilience and the ability to process her own emotions. I think it would be a good idea for LW to focus on different friends and playdates (unfortunately sometimes we do have to hang out with adults we don’t like much as kids develop their own friendship groups!) while the dads negotiate this one- and perhaps if Juno calls and asks to hang out with LW it might be an idea to say something like “I was wondering about a coffee in the playground with Diana and Minerva and their kids! Would you like to join us?” to maybe make the playdate less focussed on Anna and Elsa’s friendship.

  5. I just wanted to thank you for actually putting in the effort to address this with your kid and the other mom. Starting around this age, I got trained that if I say no and the other person doesn’t take it well it’s my fault and I have to manage their feelings (because the other parents wouldn’t teach their kids to accept no gracefully, but instead would just call my mom to badger me), and wow it has not been a positive addition to my life.

    1. Yes! The LW is worried that they are being a jerk, but they are being incredibly thoughtful and astute here.

    2. Yep, me too. I’m in my 40s now and am only just learning to acknowledge my own feelings rather than suppressing them to make other people feel more comfortable.That tendency has led to some really toxic friendships, professional relationships and romantic partnerships over the years, as well as a lot of therapy!

      1. Yuuuup. Also 40 and also trained from birth to make sure everyone else is happy–to the extent that I almost wrecked my marriage because of all the pent-up resentment of not caring for myself so I could do all the things for my husband that he never asked me to do.

        Especially for female-presenting children, learning that it’s okay if other people are upset sometimes is SO important.

      2. i second/third/fourth/nth this! I’m in my 30s and am just now beginning the early stages of practicing things like “what if I tell this person I don’t want to go to their party” and having nothing bad happen as a result. It’s liberating and also very scary!

    3. Same here. I have been putting so much work into my boundaries around stuff like this for years. LW is amazing for being so aware and teaching this to her kid so early. She is the mom I wish I had had for sure (my mom parentified me and made me manage her emotions or not “bother” her with any of mine).

      1. Are you me? Because, yeah, that happened to me. And it sucks. Big virtual hugs to you! So I’m trying doubly hard to not make my kid go through what I went through.

    4. One more thank-you from an adult who could have used this kind of support as a kid! I had a friend who I think may have been coached in a similar way to Elsa, who wielded the phrase “that hurt my feelings” with abandon, and always expected it to be the final word on who was right (her) and wrong (me). I never figured out how to respond to that, because if she said her feelings were hurt, that must be true, and hurting feelings is bad, so the thing I did or said must have been BAD and WRONG. Even if that thing was, for example, going to the door when my mom came to pick me up instead of hiding and refusing to leave so we could play longer. Or not keeping her informed of exactly which stages of puberty I reached when. I definitely could have used some adult help in identifying my boundaries and enforcing them before I got the idea that at least in some areas, withholding my consent was mean. So, keep up the good work, LW!

      1. Is your friend my mother in law? Because that lady’s feeling are hurt so often I have no idea how she gets out of bed every day. Actual text exchange the 3rd week of January:
        MIL: For our family Christmas this year can we all go see the new Star Wars movie?
        Me: That’s a definite possibility! I’m not quite ready to start planning Christmas just yet, we’re still cleaning up from last Christmas.
        MIL: Oh, ok. Did you have a bad day? Because that hurt my feelings.

          1. At Christmas 2016 with my partner’s family, my MIL was planning Christmas 2017 (we alternate families and 2017 was ‘their year’). We hadn’t even opened the presents!

        1. This reminds me of Aunt Chatty in Anne of Windy Poplars, who literally got her feelings hurt if a leaf fell off a tree. The rest of the household basically eyerolled/managed around it but rereading as an adult, it seemed unfair to everybody, including Aunt Chatty, who never got taught that pain can sometimes be managed and ignored instead of magnified.

        2. Huh, if this is the way the conversation goes, maybe this is an opportunity to return the awkwardness to sender – you can say, “Nope, having a great day! How about you? What else happened today that has you feeling so fragile?” She’s trying to pretend she’s looking out for you while guilt-tripping you, so take her at her word that she’s concerned about you and highlight how strange it is that your innocuous response caused her pain. (Of course, a real narcissist would take this opportunity to talk about their own nebulous suffering for an hour and make it your fault, but I hold out hope that your MIL is not one of those, just profoundly insecure. As always, reasons are for reasonable people – if she’s not reasonable, consider the wonderful possibilities that are born when you hang the hell up!)

      2. I had a grown up friend who did this, and although we adored each other, eventually I had to African violet on out, just to save my sanity and manage my own stress levels. I read this letter and it was like a light bulb – oh, THAT is why we couldn’t stay close!

        So this really is an incredibly important lifelong issue. Thanks to all the parents and teachers who are doing their best to raise resilient kids.

      3. I used to babysit for a child who was 90% delightful, but then she’d do things like punch her baby sister, and I’d say “Hey, that’s not OK; you’re going to have to have a time out” and then there’d be YOU HURT MY FEELINGS drama.

        Eventually I figured out that saying “You hurt MY feelings by yelling at me!!” would flummox her, but dang. I thought it was a parenting thing, but one of my kids has tried out YOU HURT MY FEELINGS, MOM multiple times, so it might be something they pick up at school, too.

        1. For me that’ll go as okay, I-the-adult hurt her feelings, but right now is still a timeout.

          Rule time first, feelings time later. They can’t multitask those, and tbh I can’t much better.

          My kids do this heavily, “you made me be mad!” whenever I enforce any rule really, but triple-strength if I raise my voice. And they’re mad and that’s legit but we still have the rule.

          “Well you made ME sad/mad/ by …” is something I have said, but more as a lapse than as a choice. It doesn’t serve any purpose in my experience. Feelings fault volleying is not going to lead much towards feelings understanding any time, and this is not the time for that talk anyway.

          You may not punch your baby sister. Okay, we’re not ready to talk more about that yet, for three minutes I’m comforting her and you be by yourself, see you in three minutes.

          Now let’s see if everybody’s feelings are ready to talk about, your sister’s then yours then mine / why we don’t punch babies even when we’re mad / even if they knock your tower over / I’m sorry I yelled / I’m sorry yelling hurt your feelings but we each are supposed to yell when someone has to stop something dangerous to a person like punching a baby down the stairs / etc.

    5. his is something that actually continues to play out with my son. As a reference, my son suffers from mental illness. He has always suffered from some level of mental illness. He has also always been a good foot taller and much more robust than any other kids his age. Therefore, a lot of people liked to treat him like he was older. Also, when he was younger and pre-medication, in the years when the ADHD was bad, he really didn’t pay all that much attention to other kids. Many times teachers, sitters, parents, my family, etc. would expect him to have this behavior of “well those kids are smaller than you so of course YOU need to apologize” or “No one will be your friend if you tell them not to touch your toys” and now it is “**I know that child over there brutally attacked you multiple times last year when I wasn’t looking and then had all the younger kids lie to cover it up, but why won’t you just try to get along with her and just trust my decision making”. And yes, I wrote that last sentence that way on purpose to just to hit home how ridiculous it sounds. No one respected one single boundary my son ever put up – and has suffered himself for it. He had no idea how to set boundaries all these years continuing to be friends with kids who called him names. He continued to cover up for the bullies at shcool because no one reacts anyway amiright?

      And ya know where he spent his summer? In an intensive hospital program for suicidal ideation due to intense bullying and assault by other children. Now, at 10, he has a case worker, regular trauma therapy, an after-school program at the same hospital, a psychiatrist (he has had since 6), and multiple upcoming psychological evals JUST TO KEEP HIM ALIVE. So, do not ever ever let anyone tell your kids to manage other kids’ emotions – because while my case may be extreme and enhanced by an already present mental illness – that mental illness before all the bullying and assaults by other kids was only a generalized anxiety disorder coupled with severe ADHD btw, the outcome doesn’t outweigh the risk. If you allow other adults to teach your child that their boundaries don’t matter, that they need to just “get along”? That your kids needs to manage another kids’ emotions to prevent Bad Things, then this is where you may end up too. Because ya know what bullies are (or in my son’s case – assaulters)? People who manipulate and push boundaries for control and you will not believe the lengths they will go to not get caught doing it. If nothing else, this woman is teaching her child that it is other people’s responsibility to deal with, correct, and manage her own emotions. You know who does that? Abusers – that’s why they abuse; you didn’t handle their emotions right. So, it is OK to keep your kid away. You are not being a jerk protecting you kid.

      ** This is true and an example of an extreme. My son has been at this sitter for years. Her niece moved in with her 5 kids who lived a very rough past. The oldest one is exhibiting clear issues. She brutalized my son for weeks last summer (I will not go into detail, but it including stoning, having held down by younger kids so she could hurt him, etc. ) and manipulated the other kids not to tell because then “she would get in trouble and not be allowed to play anymore). I knew something was wrong, so I had my daughter confess to me. I loved my kids’ sitter. I still do. She is one of my best friends. But she is blind when it comes to her nieces kids. it is too close. I am struggling with findings a new sitter.

      1. this woman is teaching her child that it is other people’s responsibility to deal with, correct, and manage her own emotions. You know who does that? Abusers – that’s why they abuse; you didn’t handle their emotions right.

        A chill went up my spine when I read that. “I’m sorry you made me hurt you.”

        I’m horrified by your son’s story. I hope he continues to get the help he needs and that you are able to find a good sitter. I hope your prior sitter isn’t responsible for anyone else’s children.

      2. I just wanted to underscore for the LW something in what Spicy Onion said– it’s not just important that you’re teaching your kid that it’s OK to set and enforce boundaries, it’s also critical that you’re backing her up when she does so. Like Spicy Onion’s son, so much of the damage I have to live with came from people in positions of power working against me when I needed to set boundaries.

        So, keep doing what you’re doing, OP! Your instincts sound like they’re spot on, and you’re doing great.

        1. Yes, also agreeing here. There were a lot of boundaries I tried to set when I was a kid. Some other kids were mean, and I didn’t want to deal with their meanness after experiencing it. My mother was equal parts “oh just forgive him! He apologized!” [multiple times, and then went back to being a jerk right after] and “you’re supposed to be friends with everyone!” And even with less serious stuff–like, my actual best friend accidentally pulling my arm too hard while we were jumping into a pool together, and me telling my parents that I didn’t want to swim with her for a while after that–that wasn’t “okay.” Complex feelings about other people were not okay.

          You’re doing the right thing, LW.

    6. Same. My Mum is pretty much Elsa at age 69, and I don’t think she will ever learn those boundaries.

    7. Likewise, but slightly different…maybe(?)

      My mom would make me apologize/manage others’ feelings if it somehow impacted her negatively. She didn’t care if I said no, etc. in general, but if it was a negative thing for her in any way at all, emotionally, socially, friendship, parental judgement from other parents, then I was required to suppress my own stuff in order to make everyone else happy. Exhausting.

      I am 55 years old, this was another lifetime, and sitting here typing this is making me feel rage-y. My mom died 10 years ago, so no outlet…of course there never was any recourse because…Mom.

    8. Thanks for the kind words – to you and to everyone in this thread. I’m not the best at all this – I’ve learned a lot the hard and expensive way and I often wonder if I’m overcorrecting my course of action based on all the shit I went through growing up and making friends and parenting my parents etc. It’s so hard sometimes to know when your gut is telling you the right thing, so thank you all. ❤

  6. Parent and youth worker here.

    My take on this is that Anna’s needs matter and deserve consideration. Juno appears to be teaching Elsa that her needs top all other needs. The thing is, is that Juno seems to do this too. If my take on the situation is correct then trying to change Juno/Elsa’s fundamental social MO is never going to end well.

    Sorry to be such a pessimist LW, but I suggest that your family need to interact in an environment which suits them. Leaving it to the Dads just shifts the problem but doesn’t solve it because, I’m guessing, Elsa’s dad is completely cool with how his partner and child interact in the world. This leaves Anna still having to ignore her own emotions and needs and treat Elsa’s as primary all the time. Unless, of course Anna’s dad wants to sort this out. If that is a good solution for you then great.

    1. Yeah, I would let the dads interact on their own and find other kids for Anna to play with. This entire situation is going to implode at some point when the LW just cannot handle Juno’s batty and self-centered behavior any more, and eventually Anna is going to grow up enough to realize what is going on and get tired of Elsa manipulating her. Let them play together at school or whatever, but fade out the playdates altogether. Stop subjecting your kid to these people.

    2. I think Dad Playdate is worth a shot anyway – you’re right that Elsa’s dad may be fine with how his partner interacts with the world, but that doesn’t mean he’ll interact the same way. I would maybe talk to my own partner about what had been happening beforehand, just so they know what you’re concerned about. And then see if it happens with a different set of caretakers.

      1. Agreed. For better or worse, coparents often parent differently, and even if they’re aligned on philosophy their techniques/interactions will vary.

        I know my husband and I agree wholeheartedly about the end goal of raising our two kids but the way each of us approaches certain situations are incredibly different. I think this dynamic is especially apparent when it’s clear that one parent is more managing their own anxieties/perception through the child than actually attempting to actively teach the child something.

        See: how I will abandon a restaurant before my food even arrives if Daughter begins kicking up a fuss vs. how my husband will nonchalantly just sit there with her yelling in bored frustration in her high chair while he finishes his meal. The end goal is the same (don’t give in to Daughter’s tantrums because she wants to run around the restaurant instead of staying in her seat) but the technique is completely different, and my way is 10% about modeling for Daughter that we don’t get to run amok in restaurants because they are for eating, and 90% being incredibly embarrassed and not wanting to be That Parent and oh my god everyone is judging me.

        The same could very well be true of Juno and JunoSpouse. It feels to me from the letter that Juno might be having Elsa go seek apologies and soothing because Juno needs to know that her kid is absolved from _whatever_ and everything is sunshine and roses again.

        1. I think maybe you’re being too hard on yourself, if you think 90% of your response is, as you say, managing anxieties.
          I’d say you’re the one actively teaching your daughter. You’re not only modeling “don’t run amok in restaurants” you’re also modeling “we don’t get to inflict our emotional outbursts on innocent bystanders” *and* you’re acknowledging her emotions. “I know you’re upset, but a tantrum is not the way to deal with it.”
          On the other hand, nonchalantly continuing to eat tells Daughter her emotions and needs don’t matter, and that it’s okay to make everyone around her miserable too. Except the person who doesn’t care because they’re keeping on eating.

          1. Young person here, the takeaway I always had from “nonchalantly continues eating” and similar was more along the lines of a “there are ways that we get what we want and these are not they” with a nice helping of “yeah if you throw a tantrum people are gonna stare at you”. But then, I was a very introverted child, and when I asked more appropriately my dad would follow through and ask for the check and leave. I think if tantrum had equaled leaving I would’ve taken entirely the wrong message, because I wasn’t thinking about the other patrons at that point (except to know that I didn’t want them staring at me).

          2. There’s definitely a balance to be struck–neither of us really have it “right”. There’s absolutely merit in not always abandoning a situation just because your child is kicking up a fuss. I worry I’m teaching her “if you cry hard enough then we’ll leave” which honestly is probably exactly what she wants, and perhaps that the perceived comfort of others outweighs our own wants/needs. Neither of which are great things to internalize.

            We’ll figure it out eventually, everyone is still quite young. But I still think it’s worth noting that the way people parent often have MUCH more to do with their own personality/insecurities etc… than with a hard and fast, unified parenting philosophy.

        2. Parenting is super-tough, and I know parents don’t always have a lot of options, but I always appreciate it when parents take their screaming toddlers somewhere else if the situation is an otherwise quiet one (i.e. much appreciated at restaurants, not really necessary out at the park). My parents would always take my brother and me to the restroom to calm down when we were tantruming. Which means I also give a complete pass to screaming kids in the restroom because there has to be somewhere to take them.

          1. Sorry Captain, I forgot that you asked non-parents not to post on this thread; please delete my comment!

    3. All the yes to the making sure your spouse on the same page here. There’s nothing like having your feelings minimized and boundaries undercut by a spouse who doesn’t have to deal firsthand with the problematic parent, and becomes invested in maintaining his friendship with the cool one.

  7. Former daycare teacher.

    Very much yes to the consent and the teaching your AFAB kid that it’s not her job to manage the emotions of everyone around her. I was raised with that expectation of emotional labour and people pleasing and it’s…not good.

    One caveat: Please make sure you’re not falling into the trap of “MY kid is right and HER kid is wrong” to the point that Anna can do no wrong with Elsa and you’re forgetting to gently start correcting her behaviour in these situations as well. Five is very much old enough that you should be validating her pain while also gently directing her away from screaming and sobbing excessively and incoherently over every single small scratch and bumped elbow, especially if this is happening multiple times every single play date.

    1. Keep in mind also that if Anna is throwing tantrums like this constantly while playing with Elsa, this can also be a manipulation tactic. If Anna gets hurt and sobs and gets cuddled and soothed every time there’s a disagreement between the two, Elsa might have a valid reason for feeling a bit vulnerable and anxious when this happens. And Juno might have a valid point in wanting to make sure her kid isn’t getting run roughshod over as well.

      Just something to think about. Parents are obviously and naturally protective! but in reality, it’s pretty rare that one kid is ALWAYS good and right and one kid is ALWAYS bad and wrong. Having a healthy understanding of how your own kid might be playing on your sympathy a bit too isn’t a bad thing.

      1. This is worth a look all right – the LW didn’t mention what happens when Elsa gets hurt, and I feel like that would be relevant information. If it’s only ever Anna, then either Elsa’s not playing safely (the Captain implied this in her answer) or Anna is overreacting – and I think if she’s overreacting that is likely a signal that she’s not as happy playing with Elsa as she appears to be.

        1. “…Anna is overreacting – and I think if she’s overreacting that is likely a signal that she’s not as happy playing with Elsa as she appears to be.”

          Or…and this is worth a look I think, Anna is manipulating her mother for the positive attention of hugs, kisses, soothing reassurances, etc. Or it could be just as OP explains it, particularly since Juno seems to think others are responsible for her emotional needs.

          I think it’s worth a look however to see if maybe OP is being a little too quick to be “super duper soothing over every single boo boo mommy” instead of “no blood…ok you’ll be fine mommy.”

          Don’t get me wrong. I was a sensitive mommy, paid attention to things, swooped in when swooping was called for, but in most instances, even at ages 4-5, I tried wherever practicable to let him self sooth.

          He managed to grow into a productive, self-sufficient, self-confident man who even as an 18 year old on his own (because he followed a girl) he navigated and found a solution to a pretty big deal issue/problem.

          I wasn’t perfect…nowhere near the same galaxy as “perfect,” but I always felt that his finding his own solutions when he could was good training for being an adult someday, which he would be for the majority of his life. OP might want to give some thoughts to giving a little more leeway for her child to learn self care.

          My 2¢

      2. I didn’t see that in the letter, though. It looks as if Anna gets hurt and just wants time to process through her feelings.

    2. Yes, definitely. We have a dynamic between the cousins where there is one kid (mine) with daycare manners (grab first, apologize if necessary) and one who is an only raised by a SaHM (It’s ALLLL mine, wait what?), and all the adults have to be cognizant that just because ALL MINE is crying does not mean Grab First hurt her, and just because Grab First is mad does not necessarily mean that ALL MINE is not playing fair.

      Allowing your kid space is really important, and I know it’s hard to manage that + Juno’s anxious “go apologize, make it better, make it go away” + Elsa’s + “Mommy said to do this”. I think asking her to give you a minute or three is a sound starting strategy, and it might give you a bit of a breather away from Juno as well.

    3. Agreed. If this is happening multiple times per playdate, that’s a bit excessive unless these kids are playing VERY rough, and a gentle redirection may be in order. My daughter does this, especially when she’s already a bit keyed up, and sometimes being very matter-of-fact about the bump or bruise can wind her down a bit.

    4. Yes, I was going to post this. (Current educator who did a stint as a teaching assistant at an elementary school, also former day camp counselor to age ranges 4-12.) 4-5 year olds are very much old enough to begin learning that small scratches and bumped elbows are part of life, and that it will hurt for a while and then get better. We had to quickly train our 4-5-year-olds at camp the difference between small ouchies and things that needed to go to the nurse, because it just wasn’t viable to have every stubbed toe become a screaming meltdown needing individual snuggles, soothing, etc., when you had a group of 12-15 kids and 3 counselors. And most neurotypical 4-5 year olds are developmentally ready for that very useful life lesson.

      If this were my kid, I would be 1) looking into whether this happens more frequently on playdates with Elsa than with other kids, and if so, why? (mis-matched playing styles, something Elsa may be doing that you aren’t seeing, kids who are individually great but just not awesome together, Anna doesn’t actually like playing with Elsa for $reasons and sees tears over a stubbed toe as a way to get a break and some mom time?) and 2) exploring ways to help Anna learn to manage getting an ouchie-level bump without a complete meltdown (distraction or redirection, magic band-aid, ouchie-go-away song, whatever that may be).

      And LW, please continue doing the good work of teaching your daughter that other people’s emotions are not hers to manage, as well as lessons around consent.

      1. I’m putting this here in the threading, though it could go almost anywhere.

        Watches! My father did this with me, and I’ve done it with my children. Whenever I’d fall and scrape a knee or whatever, he’d take off his wrist watch, hand it to me, and tell me the sting would go away in a minute. He’d instruct me to watch the second hand and wait. For greater hurts (he did a quick assessment), he’d estimate 2 minutes. For lesser ones, maybe 30 seconds. Accuracy never mattered because you can never identify the exact second something stops hurting anyway. The important thing is that the kid is welcome to cry and process and have a sleight distraction for however long it takes. And my father’s watch was special to me. (It broke when I was in highschool, and he gave it to me thinking I might like to take it apart. I got it fixed and wore it for years. I still love it.)

        Two watches are what you need to acknowledge all feelings AND set a boundary AND treat the girls equally AND (I hope) distract Juno long enough to make this work.

        Buy 2 inexpensive wrist watches with second hands. At the first sign of any sort of ouchie that makes Anna cry, hand her a wrist watch with instructions like my father gave me. Now Elsa is crying too, and Juno is jumping in. You quick hand the second watch to Elsa and give her the same instructions: Your feelings are hurt, and that hurt will go away in a minute. Watch the second hand go all the way around once. Meanwhile, Juno is doing her Anna-has-to-apologize thing, but you’ve pre-empted that by making sure everyone has a good minute to cry– and to sit mesmerized by a watch. (There’s a good chance the girls aren’t terribly familiar with watch faces or with second hands that go around and around, so these watches will be as special to them as my father’s big heavy wrist watch was to me.)

        I agree that slowly withdrawing from this best-friendship is the long term way to go, but in the short run, giving Juno a chance to see that when Elsa cries (for any reason) it’s not an emergency that has to be dealt with immediately is a good intermediate step.

        (As soon as the crying spell is over, the watches are collected and put back in your pocket. Don’t let them become toys that lose their specialness. Juno will likely go out and buy one for Elsa having decided that the watch itself is the magic talisman that stops crying without recognizing that it’s the assessment of how long the hurt will last that works. Parents like Juno are famous for looking for magic instead of things like calm, sense, patience, all those things that come from within– and that she doesn’t have.)

        1. I just reread my own post and notice another advantage to watches. If either girl is crying as part of an attention getting behavior, whether they’re doing it manipulatively or don’t know they’re doing it, the time delay will help weed that out. If it’s attention getting and not the need to wait until the ouchie stops ouching, then the crying girl will wait for the minute to be up before wailing in earnest for attention. If it’s really about the sting of the hurt knee, then waiting a minute is all it will take for everything to calm down. That goes for momentary hurt feelings too. Note I’m not suggesting that small childhood hurts can be ignored or that they’re all about getting attention, only that parents ought to be able to give the right amount of comfort and attention given the nature of the hurt.

    5. See, I was visualizing it as:
      Anna has minor incident that causes her to be momentarily upset/distracted.
      Elsa immediately escalates and starts getting in Anna’s face.
      Anna tries harder and harder to avoid/get away/shut it down, until she’s in a frenzy.
      Elsa wails and is coached to demand comfort from Anna.
      And so forth.

      Maybe that’s not what LW meant, but that’s what the pushy/needy kid in our friend group used to do (and one of the reasons we don’t see her much anymore).

  8. Oof, this is a common & super not fun thing that’s gonna happen A LOT! So, unfortunately, ya gotta learn now how to advocate for your kiddo in the face of uncool parents who model for and flat out instruct their kids in poor social behavior. It’s SOOOO hard sometimes, but it’s very important for Anna (and Elsa, too, for that matter) to see & hear you modeling this type of healthy boundary setting.

    Advice if you want it:

    1. Immediately start scaling wayyyy back on solo playdates with Juno & Elsa. If possible, include 2 other kiddos – I’ve found keeping nbers even avoids the e entual drama of the oddan out.
    2. Practice, practice, practice using your words & actions to interrupt & redirect Juno. It’s overwhelming and scary in the moment, but role-playing in advance helps so much. I felt kinda silly role-playing how to get Friend X to stop telling my child to say “it’s okay” when someone apologizes with my husband. But, the next time it happened, I found words of correction coming out of my mouth before I’d really even had a chance to think about it. So, practice saying it (OUT LOUD, not just in your head) and it will be easier in the moment.
    3. Sometimes, I get good results when I start with a thank you for assumed support of whatever it is that I’m about to do or say. It communicates that (a) this is a puposeful thing I am doing and (b) I expect you to be on board.
    Ex: “Hey, Juno, thanks for helping me show Anna that it’s okay to take some time to process before making amends. I know it’s tempting to rush in & try to resolve things right away when both girls are upset, so I appreciate that you get it and know that we’ll be back to work things out in a few minutes.”

    1. I’ve found keeping nbers even avoids the e entual drama of the oddan out.

      Sorry, autocorrect seems to have done something odd here. Just to confirm – you meant “Keeping numbers even avoids the eventual drama of the odd one out”, right?

    2. The “it’s okay” conversation….I’ve had it with my kids. A friend of mine questioned why I taught my kids to say “I accept your apology / I don’t accept your apology” instead of “It’s okay”. I thought that it was pretty clear… “It’s okay” indicates that the person being apologized to is giving a kind of pass to whatever behavior prompted the apology. My friend thought I was kind of insane about it (I drilled it into my kids heads from the time they started walking and for years afterward) but I think she got it when her son was pushed -by accident, during a game- down several stone steps and cut his lip (no stitches needed, but still a pretty ugly bruise and cut). The boy who pushed her son apologized and her son said “it’s okay”. My friend said that all she could think as she cleaned his lip was no, it’s NOT okay that he did this to you. She started pushing my agenda on her kids soon after that. And for what it’s worth…I practiced on my husband for years before we had kids so I could break the habit myself. I also practiced just saying no – with no further reason given. I struggled with that but practicing really helped.

      1. EXACTLY!!! Our kids can either say, “I forgive you” or “Thank you” when they receive an apology. NEVER it’s okay, because any infraction that warrants an apology is most definitely is not okay. Also, an apology consists of “I’m sorry that I did X hurtful behavior. Is there anything I can do to make it right?” We also don’t rush apologies or forgiveness in our house. They are purposeful instruments of reconciliation not offhand words we sprinkle over hurt feelings.

        Learning this as an adult was super hard & I wish I had seen better modeling of this as a child.

        1. “We also don’t rush apologies or forgiveness in our house. They are purposeful instruments of reconciliation not offhand words we sprinkle over hurt feelings.” ❤ ❤ ❤

      2. I do something similar! When my kids transgress in some way to me, when they apologize, I tell them, “Thank you for apologizing” — something I started doing that acknowledges they’ve apologized for whatever the incident was, but I’m not dismissing it or waving it off.

      3. I had a related talk with my cousin today. Yes, she be okay that my son did something that he shouldn’t have done, *but he shouldn’t learn that it’s an okay behavior*. Telling him, “It’s okay,” when I make him apologize for hitting her might teach him he can hit someone else. That’s so far from not okay. Instead, accepting his apology tells him that he is forgiven for bad behavior, without making the bad behavior something he should repeat.

    3. THANK YOU. especially for that last script. the thank you for the assumed support is genius! (it has a whiff of the shady car salesman and i love it, ha)

  9. Some of this may be an overreaction to the anti-bullying climate. One of the things I noticed A LOT when my kids were smaller was the narrative of ‘tell them that your feelings are hurt and they will magically understand and stop making you feel bad.’ Which is in direct conflict with boundaries and not making someone else responsible for your emotions.

    I think the script for making everyone understand that Anna needs a few minutes is awesome! No one is at their best when they’ve just been hurt. I think it’s great that Elsa is so empathetic, but there are better ways to do this than make Anna apologize for hurting Elsa’s feelings that Anna was hurt. (The logic here is a little bizarre.)

    1. I feel this. I get a bit frustrated by some of the anti-bullying rhetoric and events, not because bullying is okay but because some things, like setting boundaries, or reasonable conflict where both kids have a point, are mislabeled as bullying by well-meaning parents and teachers (rather than the child psychologists who identify truly harmful, abusive power dynamics among kids.)

      This leads to an over-emphasis on being honest about feelings– which is a good thing! this is a crucial step in a bullying scenario in which the bully is simply ignorant about, say, what jokes are not funny outside of a sitcom– and not enough emphasis on the variety of pro-social behavior choices a kid can reasonably make.

      With kids who are a little older, it can be helpful to brainstorm several choices in scenarios, although not in the heat of the moment. I’ve never worked with kids younger than 11, but an 11-year-old in Elsa’s position can find it very empowering to come up with, say, six positive choices she can make in a role-playing session when she feels rejected or overwhelmed.

      Or, even in Anna’s position, I’ve seen 5th graders identify their core values and figure out multiple choices they can make that reflect their core values– for example, “Because I value my personal space, I don’t want to hug most people. But, because I value comforting my friend, I can offer to let her hug my stuffed otter instead.” Or, “Because I value privacy when I’m upset, I’m going to walk away for five minutes to calm myself down. But, because I value communicating with my friend, I’m going to make a “time-out T” sign with my hands when I’m about to take a break during a conflict, and she’ll know we can keep talking after five minutes of quiet breathing.”

      I wish I had more experience with really young kids. Slightly older kids are surprisingly introspective about their values, and creative with their solutions to conflict! As long as you’re able to ask them open-ended questions and guide them away from harmful solutions, generally they can work things out pretty well.

      1. This reminds me of a passive aggressive suggestion that LW should not implement, but there’s a kids book called “hurty feelings” about a hippo that maybe? overreacts and is always going on about her hurt feelings that I’m not quite sure how I feel about it as a kids book but one wishes people like Juno would get as an anonymous present. I had a former colleague who I really wanted to present a copy to. That would probably constitute bullying but man, it’s a nice daydream.

      2. Yup. At my kids’ elementary school, they’ve taken the “exclusion is bad” anti-bullying messaging and applied it as this unyielding, blanket rule whereby now kids are forbidden to exclude other kids from playing with them EVER. This means that playground aides will come along and force them to include kids who have a history of physically hurting them. I don’t think that was the spirit behind that rule!

        1. I ran into this with my ex’s son, and it was infuriating. The daycare’s rule included everything except solo activities like reading. Even games for 2 had a rule where you had to alternate partners each round. My stepkid’s nemesis chased him from activity to activity, and the daycare staff refused to budge. (Chasing kid wasn’t violent. Other kids just didn’t want to play with him because he frequently lied and cheated. But the rules essentially encouraged him to harass other students instead of learning that you lose friends when you’re an asshole.)

          1. Exactly! There’s such a thing as context, and you’re not doing anyone any favors when you force a kid to continually include someone who is bullying or harassing her or him.

          2. Ugh. The easy out of the one-size-fits-all rule. Saves them from having to actually know what’s going on.

          3. Yeah exactly. How is he supposed to learn strategies for getting other kids to want to play with him? He’ll find it hard, that kid, when they go to school and nobody’s obliged to tolerate him any more.

        2. I’m having a really strong reaction to this. If I had not been allowed to get away from my bullies, there would have been horrible consequences for me, even at a relatively young age. We’ve really overshot the corrections if we’re trying to force victims and their bullies together.

        3. Do they make them play together even when a parent explains the other kid was/had bullied them? Or is it just a blanket rule up until a parent addresses it?

          (My first comment got eaten, and I didn’t think to ask this under after I hit post.)

          1. A friend of mine had to threaten the school administration with a lawsuit if the school continued to force her child to “include” a kid who had tackled him and punched him. That was the only way she got them to make an exception to the policy.

          2. I fought tooth and nail with my son’s elementary school about this. My son has some behaviour issues that involve “explosive” episodes that come in response to anxiety and outside stimuli. EX: if he’s playing a game with an agreed upon rule and someone in the game changes the rule to benefit themselves in the moment, my son becomes fixated on this and will have to either leave the game or have the person play by the rules. He has a very difficult time being “fluid” with this type of game play. The school would not let my son leave the game during recess and did a lot of “you need to adapt” talk to my son. There was little, if any, “hey how about play by the agreed upon rules and don’t be a dick so you can win” conversation to the rest of the group. The result to this was my son would get so riled up that he’d “explode” because he didn’t see the fairness in how things were handled. To be honest, I never did either. The issue came to a head when a specific boy in the group started targeting my son because he thought it was a game to get him to explode. That’s literally what they called it: the (son’s name) exploding game. The problem was – the ring leader of the game has his own behaviour issues and I was told that there was “no way that he was able to understand that what he was doing was mean.” and that he “lacked the emotional and intellectual capacity for meanness”. My response was a big OH HELL NO! I filed so many complaints and grievances – literally had to threaten getting a lawyer – before they took my request to have the boys housed in separate classes and kept apart at recess seriously. The boy moved on to torment another kid and my son had a significant decrease in explosive outbursts. Surprise! Surprise!

          3. Replying to myself because grr, dang nesting.

            @Guava That is absolutely horrifying. You should not need to threaten a lawsuit to protect your child! I can’t even wrap my head around how people think doing something so cruel is ok. This is actually facilitating bullying, as far as I’m concerned.

            @I’ll come up with a clever name later…maybe. I’m so sorry you and your son had to go through that. I’m also appalled. It makes me so angry. Why is it one kids emotional and behavioral problems trumps anothers? Why is that other kid seen as more important than your child? (I’m not just talking about your kid, this seems to be on the rise outside your particular situation) It’s teaching kids that their feelings and safety, both physical and mental, aren’t important and it breaks my heart. I feel so very sad for the kids who will be bullied by the one that bullied your son, who may not have parents that are willing to fight as hard as you did.

          4. @clever name: I’m so sorry you and your son had to go through that. What makes your kid’s needs less important than the other kid’s?

      3. Thank you for this – I like seeing where all this might look like when the kids are older. A road map of sorts. 🙂 I’ll try dial it down for Anna.

  10. I love this question and all of the answers. My daughter is 3 and I find myself thinking a lot about how to respond to her feelings in a way that will serve her well as she gets older. She has gotten really good at taking deep breaths and calming herself down, which I think is great, but I try to catch myself before I’m like actively trying to get her to dispense with the feelings and the tears before she’s had enough time to let them pass. It’s a fine line to walk. Just want to say to the LW that you’re not an asshole; you see your kid being thrust into a situation that is really tough for her and you are thinking critically about it. I hope things go well for you!

  11. LW, I think your instincts are in exactly the right place on this, and you are definitely not the asshole. I don’t have much to add to what the Captain’s said, but I do want to briefly plug the book “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, And Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. My husband and I have been listening to the audio book and finding a lot to talk about. They do a fantastic job of giving tools to validate kids feelings, whatever they are, without outsourcing the management of those feelings to someone other than the child.

    There are a lot of exercise/workbook style things, so while the audiobook is great, we’ve gone ahead and purchased a hard copy as well.

    1. There is a great version of that book called “How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen”, which is made for exactly this age group (by the same authors), and I have found it INVALUABLE. (For exactly the reasons stated above, but I think maybe the tools and exercises might be more relevant.)

      1. !!!! *rushes off to see if her library has it*

        (as a note, this one looks like it’s actually by the daughter of the author of the original)

        Thanks so much for mentioning this!

      2. Seconding the rec for How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen! I keep it in my backpack to re-read so I can internalize it better; I haven’t really felt the need to do that for basically any other parenting book ever. (Parent of a 6 and 3.5 year old.)

        For the LW: you’re not being the asshole. It’s your responsibility to be teaching Anna, and part of that is teaching her about emotions and boundaries and relationships! She’ll probably run into other people doing the thing that Juno/Elsa do as she grows up, and learning how to cope with that is a life-skill. (As is “not being like that”.) Given her age, it’s also your responsibility to be shielding her from things she can’t reasonably be expected to handle, and I’d say this sort of… emotional not-quite-blackmail qualifies.

        The way our society thinks, teaching Elsa *isn’t* your responsibility… but I tend to believe that it’s a good thing when grown adults can help kids in their lives towards a healthy, functional view of the world, so if your teaching/helping Anna can also provide a counter-narrative to Elsa, it might help keep Juno’s (frankly rather unhealthy-sounding) attitudes towards emotions from getting quite so firmly entrenched in Elsa’s brain. (If you can’t manage that, though, no condemnation! Parenthood doesn’t always leave us with lots of willpower for would-be-goods.)

  12. Have you asked Anna if she likes playing with Elsa, or how she feels when these situations happen? I would let her know that it’s okay to not play with Elsa one on one anymore if she seems to be saying she doesn’t enjoy it/doesn’t feel comfortable with it.

    And while a conversation with Juno after the fact may not go well, I would definitely encourage you to have a conversation with Anna after the play dates. That’s a great time to talk about consent and emotions and how lots of people think girls need to manage other people’s emotions for them, and that’s not true— you’ll have relevant examples that will help put these big ideas into context for her.

    If you are going to have the dads take over play dates, make sure your husband is 100% on board with whatever scripts you both decide to use and is willing to use them to support Anna in feeling her feelings. And if she doesn’t want to play with Elsa anymore, there’s nothing saying the guys can’t meet up for coffee or a beer or whatever sometime without the kids.

    1. parent of two kids (now nearly grown) here.

      I agree that a core part of your strategy needs to be talking with Anna. (create an opening for her to be brutally honest with you! Make it safe for her to say she thinks Elsa is manipulative with the hugging, or any other negative thing. It won’t be easy, but it’s important. Personally, I find that my kids are more open when we’re focused on something else, like washing dishes together or whatever)

      Anna’s needs are paramount here, and she also has agency in creating the situation.

      This is as good a place as any: When my kids were littler (like, 2, 3, 4), their phenomenally excellent daycare developed (and enforced) a phrase for conflicts similar to these (it started with kids who were grumpy about too-enthusiastic greetings in the morning).

      “I’m not ready yet.” (note the “yet”–it implies a future in which the child WILL be ready)

      So the kids were coached to use that phrase, exactly. And then they were ALSO coached to “listen to [the other kid’s] words.”
      And that “listening” was ENFORCED.

      So…kid got hurt or upset. Other kid wanted to apologize and hug it out.
      Upset Kid was encouraged to say, “I’m not ready yet.”
      Then the teacher would say to the Apologizing Kid, “Susie isn’t ready for your apology yet. She’s still upset. When she’s done being upset, then she will be ready to hear your apology and be friendly again.”
      The teacher would then redirect. “Why don’t you play with the truck until Susie is ready. I’m sure she’ll come tell you when she is.”
      The teacher would return to coaching Upset Kid: “Susie, when you are ready for Bobby’s apology, and you’re ready to be friendly again, will you come and tell him?”

      I have often simply imposed this sort of thing on other people’s kids, even if their parents are right there. I channel my inner daycare worker, and I simply take charge in an impersonal, “this is how the world works,” way.

      What to do when Anna is rejecting hugs from Elsa?
      This can adapt. Anna can say, “I’m not ready for hugs right now, Elsa,” instead of just shrugging her away.

      You can also turn this around, w/ Else being the one who isn’t ready: “Elsa, you seem upset, so I don’t think you’re ready to play just yet–When you are ready to not be upset, let us know.”

      I don’t know that this is perfect for every aspect of this, but it was tremendously helpful to have that script written by the grownups and to have the kids heavily coached both to USE it and to RESPECT it.

      1. Oh my gosh, I love this. I have a reticent nearly 3 year old, whose going to need these skills soon.

      2. This is great! In my experience, it works beautifully to channel my inner daycare worker and state “how the world works”.

        Some scripts: I’ve coached my kids (and their friends at times) after an incident to “make it right” rather than apologize. This script and coaching prompts the person who caused hurt to consider the other person and what they might need/want. Often the hurt person first needs space.

        Also, regarding consent and hugs, my go to script is “it’s ______’s body, it’s their choice” and standing with and supporting anyone who expresses unwillingness to hug/touch. (It makes me so happy, that my 5year old daughter casually says no to about half the hugs offered by me or my husband).

        For working out what toy play with, I love the book Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy by David Soman and Jacky Davis.

        Keep up the good work LW, you are doing a great job!

      3. Former Montessori teacher (a little 3-6, mostly 15-36 months) and this is a much better wording of what I intended to post until I saw it. Highly effective with a decent range of kids and also parents. Solid strategy backed up by Good Words.

  13. Stepparent of a dramatic 5 year old here. My go-to phrase for dealing with ALL THE SADS is “it’s okay to be sad” and then asking the sad child if them need to sit quietly for a bit until they feel better. Sometimes, they choose to sit in a comfy chair, maybe crying a little, maybe just being sad for a few minutes. In a few minutes, I ask if they feel better and want to go back to playing some more. Generally they do. While someone is the “sad/angry/EMOTIONS chair”, they get left alone regardless of who wants to interact, other kids, grandparents, aunts etc. I’m trying to teach/ reinforce that it is completely ok/normal to be sad/angry and that you don’t have to change how you feel to make others more comfortable. You get your time. At the same time, your own personal sadness doesn’t mean that everyone needs to comfort/interact with you. You can be sad and others can still do fun things while waiting for you to feel better. I’ve been using this for a few years now and it seems to work reasonably well for both interrupting an escalating emotional situation and for teaching that emotions happen to everyone. It also helps that I try to emulate this as well. If I’m sad or cranky, I don’t pretend not to be. I just apologize and go sit in my own version of the emotions chair (a comfy chair with a nice book and cold drink while being left alone for five minutes really does help the sads and prevents me from being cranky AT people). Best of luck!

    1. I was not a fan of Daniel Tiger until I heard the song, “It’s okay to be sad sometimes. Little by little, you’ll feel better again.”

      1. Daniel Tiger’s episode on what to do when you’ve accidentally hurt someone is also really spectacular. Apologize, but then offer to make it better (and accept if they don’t want your help).

  14. I’m a parent and have a similarly aged child.

    I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of saying something along the lines of ‘sometimes people need different things, and that’s ok. Maybe it’s time for everyone to go separate ways for a little bit (few minutes/many weeks, depending…) and let’s get back together when everyone’s needs match up a bit more.’

    And, to my kid, ‘you have to be kind to everyone including yourself, and sometimes that means that if other people aren’t being kind to you, sometimes you need to tell them to go away’.

    And I’ve gotten mileage out of that with my kids (playground situations, or daycare issues – specifically, yes, this kid at daycare wants to hug you, but you don’t want to and you don’t have to. You DO have to be kind while telling him you don’t want to, and if his feelings are hurt by a kind refusal those are his responsibility. If he continues, you escalate to an adult. Helped by the fact that the adults at daycare are big on enforcing consent for that kind of thing…), and with other adults (you need coffee for your headache, the smell of that flavored coffee will GIVE me a headache, so why don’t we postpone this meeting by half an hour), and honestly with my kid – the time she told me I was ‘hurting her feelings’ by being angry that she hit me is pretty stark in my memory, and seriously reinforced my notion of ‘hurt feelings matter, but sometimes they’re a natural, normal, and understandably byproduct of the situation, and we need to get through the situation and learn to handle our feelings’.

    In Elsa’s case, it seems like the kid doesn’t have the skills because the parents also don’t have the skills, which is a significantly more difficult for the kid in question. I’m sorry.

    1. ‘you have to be kind to everyone including yourself, and sometimes that means that if other people aren’t being kind to you, sometimes you need to tell them to go away’

      THIS IS GENIUS!!! I’ve tried to put this into words when dealing with my 8th grader. Her friends are very important to her and sometimes I notice that she’s put herself in situations where she’s invited someone along that she likes but who isn’t kind to her all the time. She’s excited about the person coming before the person is there, but the moment the person gets there the excitement goes away because the person can be unkind to my daughter and her other friends. I’ll definitely be using this soon!!!

    2. Yeah, I like your last paragraph in particular because this feels to me like Elsa could be afraid of being blamed or getting in trouble over Anna’s hurt. And Juno has communicated to her that you should ‘share your feelings!’ Maybe it’s just my teaching style, but I don’t get so into ‘sharing our feelings’ with little kids. But Juno should really make sure Elsa knows that sometimes people get hurt, it’s an accident, and it’s not always anyone’s fault. This reads a bit like Juno feels there has to be a guilty party, and either Elsa is bad for hurting Anna or Anna is bad for not accepting Elsa’s apology right away.

    3. /the time she told me I was ‘hurting her feelings’ by being angry that she hit me is pretty stark in my memory,/
      Yuuup, little kids start trying to manipulate early; my 4 year old for a time would start demanding hugs any time she was in trouble (I mean, it probably sounds reasonable on the surface, but just trust me it was essentially trying to get us to manage her hurt feelings rather than focus on the fact that she did something wrong and how to do better in the future)
      We are very big on allowing her to feel what she will feel and take responsibility for managing it (in a 4 year old, this mostly involves us just talking about what to do next, and if she’s really working herself in a huff let her know she needs to stop / time out / etc), but also clearly respect boundaries. She says stop tickling (even when she clearly wants us to continue)? We stop. If one sibling tells the other to stop X? They need to stop X, none of this laughing and repeating X to make the other squeal. Etc etc.
      Anyway just verifying LW is spot on on wanting to model good boundaries and not let others trample them. Probably best to minimize interactions and speak up in the moment as outlined above.

  15. My approach with hugs, or any kind of touch, has always been let my children decide what they want. They always knew, even while sobbing, but couldn’t always manage the words. So in an Anna and Elsa situation, if Elsa is trying to hug my sobbing child, I would be Anna’s words: Do you want a hug right now? If I got a headshake no from sobbing Anna, I would tell Elsa something like “Anna doesn’t want hugs right now. We’ll all feel better if we play by ourselves for a couple minutes. Anna will come over when she’s ready.” It’s easy to fall into feminine softeners and make the last statement with a questioning “ok” but don’t. Calm firm statement that lets Anna decide her physical and emotional boundaries with mom helping when words are hard.

    As far as talking with Juno, I would focus those talks on consent. Keep the emotional weirdness out of it. “The girls start school in another year. . . I’ve been reading more about teaching kids autonomy and consent. . . ” It’s not personal, it’s about two little ones being prepared to navigate the social backwaters of kindergarten.

    1. Another thing I’ve found helps with keeping things from being too personal is to frame it as a “different families have different rules” conversation, which most preschoolers can understand. “In our family we ask for some space when we’re upset in order to calm down before we work things out with our friends.” Adapt as needed.

      Preschoolers also often respond well to role-playing in preparation for tricky situations. My oldest was a bit shy with new people and would end up being rude because he didn’t want to engage, so we practiced saying things like, “Sorry, I don’t want to talk right now.” Something to consider with Anna to help give her the words to say what she needs from Elsa in the moment.

      1. Reminds me of my home daycare provider cousins “At Linda’s house we don’t hit” “At Linda’s house we wash our hands after going potty” etc. ad infinitum.

        1. Yes. I have found that, “In this house, we don’t put our shoes on the [white, no-kids] sofa” or “In this house, we don’t open and close all the cabinet doors/blinds” works very well. (As I glare at the parents.)

    2. In terms of consent, we also teach that if she doesn’t want a hug, she can offer some other form of acknowledgment. Like a high five (minimal contact) or a wave or thumbs up (no

    3. Okay. Maybe it’s just me but holy does this ever strike me as way too much parenting. It is amazing what happens if you just let kids work stuff out without jumping in to comfort and cuddle and broker and mediate. I’m not saying let them go all Lord of the Flies and beat each other up, I’m saying let them handle it their own way. At most redirect the communication so they’re speaking to each other. “Anna, if you don’t like that, what can you say to Elsa?” All that walking and snuggling and kissing and protecting and communicating-on-behalf-of? Let it go. Let it go!

      At two or three, my son went through a hitting phase where he thought that was just the most interesting way to interact with other kids. He didn’t yet have the empathy to understand that hitting hurt them. It got so that I dreaded going to the park. I tried all kinds of parenting interventions. Finally one day I said to the child he’d just hit “looks like you didn’t like that! You can tell Scooter ‘No hitting!’ if you want to!” Which she did. And he stopped. For him, all attention was great. My carrying on about the wrongness of hitting was a good outcome (woohoo! attention!) and so was playing with that little girl. But clearly it was more important to learn to play than to hear me talk.

      1. I should probably have added that my oldest, “Kristof,” had very delayed speech and couldn’t communicate clearly with peers until first grade age. He made a lot of progress in kinder but I still had to be his words sometimes. My younger two got different amounts of me intervening depending on age and level/type of upsetness. None of which I mentioned originally because it wasn’t relevant to what LW asked about 🙂

  16. Official parent of a 2.5-year-old. I agree with the Captain’s scripts and general advice. I also agree that helping Anna manage her emotions is a good idea. We have a board book, “Calm Down Time”, that’s been helping a lot with our kid. (And it works! We do deep breaths when Kiddo gets into the hyperventilating stage, and it calms them right down.)

    Re consent, hecking yes. I was at the daycare this one time, and some other kid came up to give Kiddo a hug. Kiddo backed away, and the other kid pursued. Daycare teacher: “[Other kid] has just been giving everybody hugs and kisses this morning!” Me: “And also it’s important to learn what a “no” looks like, even when someone doesn’t say it out loud!” (Because I will be damned if I let “kids will be kids” win out over “you always get to say ‘no'”.)

    1. Thank you! When I was in kindergarten, a little boy always used to try to kiss me on the cheek. I hated it! But, no adults would do anything about it. The teacher and my mom both said he was just being friendly. I remember frantically searching for seats that already had different students on each side. Because , if there was an empty chair next to me, he would sit there and kiss me constantly during whatever our activity. Even now, it makes me stressed. Out of al my classmates, his is the face and name I remember most clearly, 30 years later.

      1. I had something like this in preschool, and it’s very nearly the only thing I remember. Boy just would not leave me alone, and eventually I just hauled off and hit him. I recall very clearly not really wanting to hit him, but I just could not get him to stop any other way, and I would not be coerced into apologizing by the adults when he wasn’t.

    2. I’m curious: did teacher get the message and did the Serial Hugger leave your child alone?

      1. I don’t know off-hand, but I do know that with future drop-offs, she didn’t make that excuse when the kid started doing that thing again. That’s better than a stick in the eye.

  17. This is the ring theory of comfort, but for preschoolers, isn’t it? You sort of start to understand why some people have such difficulty with the concept in adulthood.

  18. I’m a mother of two highly sensitive children. I feel that something is off when these incidents are occurring during every playdate. Juno’s behaviour is clearly problematic but you have great suggestions here that will hopefully help you to take care of yourself in this situation. This statement of yours got me thinking “Are you me?” “I wasn’t raised w great boundaries and feelings talking skills, so I’ve largely through therapy, your blog, and hard life experience taught myself as an adult to do all this. And now I’m lost.” I’m picking up on some frustration on your part where you say that things kick off before you’ve even finished your coffee but then you seem to shut your own needs down by saying that the kid’s are understandable. And they are, of course, but so are yours. I wish Past Me had known that my daughter’s extreme meltdowns, including at age 4 or 5, were a sign of much worse to come and that I had balanced my own needs with those of my kids better. Like you, I was determined to tell my kids it was OK to be angry and sad etc. because I didn’t get that myself. I think this is right but it’s only a very small start. I just realize that the acknowledgement of feelings is only the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more unmet needs in those icy waters and I’ve realized that I must go deeper into what I didn’t get or I have no hope of giving it to my kids. Joining the dots of what you said, your family of origin may have been like mine – if so I do hope you are pursuing therapy. Whatever your situation, I hope things will get better for you.

    1. I disagree that it’s “off” for there to be an incident at every playdate at this age. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a two-child playdate among the preschool set that was completely conflict-free. The problem seems to be that the way the conflicts are handled escalates them instead of resolving them. Ideally, this is the age where kids really start to have the ability to negotiate and state their needs, but they need guidance and space to do that (I have 4-year-old twins and I’ve had to force myself to stay quiet while they work something out between themselves). I suggested some role-playing with Anna in another reply, but when my oldest was this age (and on the more sensitive side) I often found myself telling him, “It’s not my job to change your feelings. I can help you if you tell me what you need, but that’s all I can do.” It sounds like that’s a script that might be useful for Anna, as well.

      1. This.

        A colleague of mine has 3 kids (6, 5, and 5) and one morning came in and was like ‘could we have ONE SINGLE MORNING without a meltdown??!’ and without even flinching I was like ‘no. OBV.’ and then we both laughed.

        ’cause… yeah. multiple kids, together, for more than say 2 hours (so at least one of them is gonna be getting somewhat tired and therefore clumsy…)… meltdowns are Not Unusual, let’s just say .

        1. Shorter playdates might be better here– I know when my kids (8, 5, and 1) start getting melt-downy with a friend it is TIME TO GO. Two hours is a loooong playdate, especially when you aren’t a fan of the other parent.

          1. When I was a kid playdates (but we didn’t call them that), and kids birthdays, were 2pm til 4pm on Saturday afternoon. *Maybe* after school on Friday, until 5.30pm, but then Saturday wasn’t going to happen. That was it. Now that I think about it, the visiting kids parent didn’t hang around, either. If meltdowns happened, the visiting kids parent was called, and it all got cut short.
            I ended up following that, ’cause my oldest was on the sensitive side, my middle one was prone to moody episodes, and my third had the tendency to be a bit naughty when he got bored. Once they and their friends realised that playtime wasn’t going to last indefinitely, and that over the top carry on would result in it being cut short, things actually ran pretty smoothly (usually hehe). My kids also became pretty selective about who they would have their playtime with.
            I don’t know how that would go down with Juno in this particular instance, but I did employ the use of having somewhere else to be after, to help set the boundary with some Mums.

        2. Yeah. Mother of an almost-five year old here. “It’s not a kid party unless someone cries” is something we say a lot around here.

          We are also learning how to work through the DRAMA! TRAGEDY! OH NOES! of being almost five and having something not go as planned. I’m finding it tricky because some of this is developmental and biological (it’s terrible when your child is sobbing with distress and then becomes further distressed because she can’t calm herself effectively yet) and yet some of it is clearly avoidable stuff that’s a matter of attitude and perspective. Being angry and frustrated because a same-age kid deliberately knocked over a block tower? Sure. Having the same feeling because a baby touched a cup you’d been playing with and abandoned at the public playspace? Not so much.

          If we had Elsa-Juno dynamics going on, I think I’d put the playdates on hold for a bit, just to give my kid a break. You can always try again in a month, both to see if the kids have gotten a wee bit more of their shit together in the interim, and to break the pattern of “play with Elsa, have a crying fit, everyone’s upset and gets frantic mama soothing”.

  19. This stuff is super hard. My son is 2 years 3 months, and I’m currently working on “Does X look like they are enjoying this game?” and “look at their face, you made them sad when you did Y”, because I want him to learn non-verbal, non-physical signs of “I’m not enjoying this” NOW. If he feels bad because he hurt somebody (even accidentally), then GOOD. That’s how he SHOULD feel. And if he can’t manage his reaction to that feeling, then it’s up to me and his other mother to reassure him that it’s ok, just try hard not to do it again. It’s not up to the other kids make him feel better.

    In other words, OP, you aren’t the jerk. I wouldn’t even bother addressing this with Juno. I think you can say to Elsa “Sweetie, I know you’re sorry, and you didn’t mean to hurt Anna (if that part is true), but Anna needs a few minutes to calm down before she’s ready to play, so can you wait and say sorry then? ” Then leave (if you can), and let Juno deal with Elsa’s wailing.

    Then, when she does say sorry (at the appropriate time), I’d do what I already do with my son and make a big production of saying, “OK! Everybody is OK! Let’s get back to having fun!” I think little kids need to know they can come back from offences, and that you can be friends again (with a bunch of caveats, but for normal, little kid stuff, with kids who show genuine remorse, and where the offences flow both ways, this is basically true).

    I wonder if Juno holds grudges and has big emotions at Elsa when Elsa annoys or upsets her, and now Elsa panics whenever she upsets ANYBODY because, in her experience, that’s the start of a really unpleasant time, rather than an easily fixed little kid problem?

    1. “I wonder if Juno holds grudges and has big emotions at Elsa when Elsa annoys or upsets her, and now Elsa panics whenever she upsets ANYBODY because, in her experience, that’s the start of a really unpleasant time, rather than an easily fixed little kid problem?”

      I immediately wondered this as well! My (mostly wonderful) mother was occasionally overwhelmed by her kids and had some trouble controlling her (non-abusive) anger—it took me YEARS to learn to let someone else just be angry rather than panicking and trying to manage that anger. I have my mother’s temper, and am working so damn hard to handle it better with my own kiddo.

      Not that I think this is something LW can or should try to fix. Just gave me feels for Elsa.

      1. From the LW’s description I’d say it’s certainly possible. When I read that bit about flipping out and taking the CAR KEYS I was okay, this just escalated very, very quickly!

    2. Oh, gosh. And how much emotional labor is Elsa forced to do when Juno gets her feelings hurt? Yikes.

  20. Not a parent technically but a sister-mum (plus experienced baby-sitter, former nursery worker and former paediatric nursing student) and I would advise taking a break from this friendship for a while. Elsa is being taught to be manipulative and her mum isn’t going to stop doing that because she is also emotionally manipulative. I would maybe try the dads’ managing the playdates a couple of times, but I would instruct my partner on exactly what behaviour to look out for and have him try out the Captain’s scripts. If Elsa’s dad respects the scripts, then all is good and the kids can continue to play together with their dads’ supervision. But chances are he’s not going to, because emotional manipulation is his family dynamic. Not every childhood friendship lasts, and this will be a good lesson for Anna, that it’s ok to stop being friends with someone who hurts you.

    I learned very young that everyone else’s emotions were my responsibility (thank you emotionally abusive mother) and I had a series of ‘best friends’ who manipulated me that way. I used to tie myself up in knots trying to keep them happy, whilst they isolated me from other healthier friendships by outright lying about me and to me. I was in my late teens before I learned that it wasn’t ok for me to be treated like that. And it took years of work before I stopped being so easily manipulated, and a particularly nasty ‘best friend/romantic interest’ in my early 20s who had my self worth in the toilet before I saw through her. Basically what I’m trying to saw LW, you are being a good parent by standing up for Anna and you will be modelling good friendship behaviour by taking a step back from Juno too. You are teaching her that her feelings are valid, and that she is allowed to feel them before she deals with anyone else’s. I do wonder if Anna having such strong reactions to minor bumps and scratches is her way of communicating her discomfort with manipulated by Elsa and Juno, but I may be projecting my own feelings on to that.

    Good luck LW, I wish healthy friendships for you and Anna.

  21. The only other suggestion that I have besides the Cap and commentariat’s excellent ideas, is to do some practice / “social story” work with Anna in non-playdate situations. Maybe “Mama accidentally broke a dish and now I need a little bit of time to calm down before I start cleaning it up.” “Daddy likes hugs when he gets home from work, but then he needs a minute to go change out of his work clothes before we can play.” Modeling for her that asking for boundaries can be kind and matter-of-fact.

  22. Parent here, whose Andy had an Elvis – LW, you are not an ass. Your concern is valid, maybe especially for young girls. It isn’t your Anna’s job to manage Elsa’s feelings, but she will face pressure to do that forever. I was fortunate that my Elvis’s parents have been great about making that clear to Elvis, and that they are big on consent. It’s not (to me) a huge deal for 4yos, because you can pull the ‘as you get older / visit other houses, the rules change’ to modify anything Anna picks up from Juno’s requests, but it is totally an opportunity for you to model constructive ways to deal with these expectations.

    In the moment, as Elsa comes crying for support, maybe:
    To Elsa (*if* you are the parent she complains to): I hear that you’re disappointed that Anna doesn’t want to do The Thing. Is there another Thing that you both want to do? (validate, redirect)
    To Anna: I hear what you feel, it’s ok, take a breath. Is there something you want to do that you think Elsa might like?
    To Juno: Juno (saying her name is important, to get her attention away from crying Elsa), break time! In five minutes, we’ll find something they both want to do.
    Alternately: Juno, we don’t make Anna hug if she’s not interested. It’s a consent thing – we’re starting it early. (calmly, matter-of-fact) (then redirect): Kids, what do you think about doing Happy Activity?

    Outside of the moment:
    To Juno: Both kids have their own preferences and moods, and I’ve noticed we react differently when those clash. When it happens, can we sympathize with the kids about their feelings, and then redirect them to something they both like? I don’t want either kid to be forced into something they don’t want.
    To Anna: Sometimes, friends don’t want to do the same thing. That’s ok – if we were all the same it would be boring. Just keep on saying what you do and don’t want, and look for things that you both want to do. I’m here and will support your choices.
    Also to Anna: Is there anything that always happens that you really don’t like? Let’s talk through the options you have: saying no and ignoring the fallout (OK!); saying yes and being unhappy (not generally what we want, but sometimes we do it; when might you do this, and when not?); offering an alternative (OK!); calling on parent for help (sure, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see what happens with the other options?); etc

    On the saying yes though unhappy: PURELY MY OPINION, many parents go with ‘if unhappy, say no’ (especially for younger kids), but my reasoning is: adults sometimes have to do stuff we don’t like, so I think kids need tools to assess the cost / benefit, especially short-term cost for long-term benefit like school or work. I think part of that is for them to see situations where the benefit is not worth the cost (ie, Elsa’s calmness is not worth getting hugged when I don’t want to) and to explore ways to change the cost / benefit options. I started doing this with my (male, developmentally delayed) kid around 5, so 4 is not crazy early to introduce this complexity.

    On the ‘in the moment’ scripts: they’ll be most effective if your attitude is cheerful, calm, *of course* Juno will be happy to help redirect the girls. Make it boring. If the drama starts as soon as you walk in the door with Anna not wanting to hug and Elsa getting upset, see if there’s a way to change the greeting ritual – a special handshake? Having one kid deeply involved in a mutual favorite activity (ie, getting to the playground 5 min early and being on swings when second kid arrives)?

    Good luck!
    (also, general parenting comment: I thought the Terrible Twos / Threes was the last emotionally volatile stage before tweendom, but there’s at least one more, around 6 – 8, as they start to emotionally grasp the sheer size of the world around them. It’s shorter and less loud, but the tears… oh the tears…)

  23. LW, if I might suggest a temporary measure for when it’s just you, Juno, and the kids? If it’s possible, when Anna needs a moment to reorient herself after a bump or fall, can you and she physically leave the immediate area where Juno and Elsa are located? Rather than trying to comfort her right in the middle of everything, I’d call for a time out (like, verbally say “Whoops! Time out for a second!” or “I got this, we’ll be right back!”) then take your in-need-of-consolation-child and walk several yards out of the togetherness-space until you both are in semi private you-space. Step out of the circle of the play area, leave the room, create a cone of LW and Child for yourselves. If Juno prompts her child to follow or tries to follow her own self, respond with “Taking a moment, we’ll be back when we’re ready!” If you’re physically capable of comforting Anna on the run, then run, girl. Nothing says “my kid and I need space” like actually taking physical space.

    Barring that, since you’re trying to ghost out of this relationship anyway, I don’t see a problem with looking Juno in the eye when she starts her prompting and plainly telling her to “give us a minute.” It doesn’t need to be rude, just firm, no nonsense, and then completely ignore both her and her child until Anna is calm, then return to giving them attention like nothing happened, “Ok! Anna is ready to play again!” Which is easier, per advice above, if you make and maintain a bit of distance for the brief period of immediate minor crisis.

    1. Totally agree with onamission5. Parent of two kids (12 and 9) and this parenting conflict comes up in various forms for a good while….we’re just moving into a new set of issues with the 12 yo.

      I’ve found that how you say it is as important as what you say. A light breezy matter of fact tone for both the other mom and both the kids works really well. Any tone laden with a lot of concern, meaning or gravitas ups to a level that may not be productive because I think you want to deescalate the emotion.

    2. Mom of five living children. Oldest over thirty, youngest is three. Co-sign all of this. With parents like Juno and their kids, especially if it’s a pattern I use myself as a meat shield. If Juno prompts her child to invade my personal space I look at both child and parent and say, “we need space” along with my patented glare of death towards the parent. I also follow it up with “I will let you know when Anna is ready to chat.”

      1. I have four, three of whom are very close in age, and it’s a tactic I’ve used with my own kids when they were small and one of them decided they suddenly needed my undivided attention *during a meltdown* of another kid. “Time out, Sibling and I will be right back.” (this was a dynamic which played out between kid2 and kid3 fairly often, with kid2 being the one who demanded constant interaction and kid3 being willing to wait and wait… until he just couldn’t any more… cue kid2 “needing” me when it was kid3 who actually had the pressing need) It is not the end of the world if a child who ordinarily gets undivided attention has to wait their turn, in fact, it’s a fairly important life lesson. Also important is not just blowing them off but following up on your word upon return, “Ok, I’m back, what did you need?”

        I’m not sure about giving Juno the stink eye, I think I’d reserve that for people who are aggressively being assholes rather than overly needy friends who demand outsized levels of attention and coach their kids to behave likewise. I mean, that’s a kind of assholish behavior, I suppose, so ymmv, but I’d personally hold off until such time as boundaries aren’t being hinted/vibed at and ignored but stated directly and ignored. I think firm, kind, and direct is the way to go for the time being.

      2. Parent of 6 and 9 year old girls here and I agree with this so hard. Anna is still small enough that you can pick her up and walk away (especially if there has been a physical hurt) – and if Juno tries to detain you, you can put up a friendly but firm hand and say “thanks, but we need a minute,” and continue moving out of the vortex of crying and emotion-hurling. This gives the girls time to calm down away from each other, but shows Anna that you are there to shield her from these unreasonable expectations – which will make her feel secure.

        That said, I also agree with others who say you should probably cut way down on this friendship in order to protect Anna and rid yourself of the burden of interacting with Juno. There is such a thing as gentle-ghosting in the world of kid friendships where the demands of our busy lives just don’t let us accept *quite* as many play dates as we did before and that when we do accept them it’s always in a group setting, etc. In this situation, I’d have a chat with my partner so that he’s on board and can deal with his own friendship with the other dad while simultaneously supporting a severely reduced schedule of kid meetups (I wouldn’t even recommend dads + kids meetups). You are definitely not in the wrong, LW. In fact, I think your instincts are right on point.

        1. I would agree that with the power of the stink eye comes great responsibility, and I don’t bust it out on every play date. However, if Juno is choosing to ignore the fact that I am attending to my child and I need her to attend to hers, and she was still trying to center herself and her kids needs? Then I’m going to be pretty clear that I need her to back off and that it’s not up for debate. I see it in terms of prioritizing my goals. My daughter needs to know that I will 1000% be there to defend her boundaries. She needs to understand that if you have asked someone to back off repeatedly, and they haven’t she is absolutely allowed to escalate, make a scene, whatever. . That takes priority for me over social awkwardness with someone who has already shown me that she’s not going to respect boundaries.

          I do get that my way of handling it may not be for everyone.

  24. Parent, step-parent, (sort-of) grandparent here. I’m going to emphasize the idea of separating the kids when these interactions start. Elsa is being encouraged to make Anna responsible for her feelings, and Anna certainly knows that by now. I suspect that at least part of the crying and wailing is a way to communicate to Elsa how hurt/angry she is, and that Anna gets some satisfaction from withholding forgiveness/continuing to be upset.

    This is not a negative comment about Anna at all! Part of learning about the world is learning how our behavior affects other people’s behavior – and in this case, when Anna gets upset, very interesting things happen with Juno and Elsa. I would immediately make Anna’s injury MUCH less interesting to Elsa, Juno, AND Anna by getting her far away from them when she gets upset. I would also dial back on some of the parental comforting in favor of prompting her to self-soothe. Remove her from the situation, sit next to her, and encourage her to “take a minute,” “deep breath in/deep breath out,” whatever – it almost doesn’t matter, so long as it’s something *she* can do herself to help herself feel better.

  25. Boy howdy have I dealt with this, LW. I have a couple of thoughts. Sometimes, when parents are friends, it creates pressure on the kids to work things out. Juno sounds like a lot of work, and I don’t blame you for wanting to put some space between you. But if Anna and Elsa are having scuffles that result in crying on a really frequent basis…they might not be as compatible as you think.

    Also, I’ve been down that road where the mom is making everything about her kids’ feelings and your and your kid’s get lost in the shuffle. You’re right to be concerned – this behavior is worrisome. Often the adults who pressure you for apologies are the ones who are trying to sweep their hurtful behavior under the rug and force you to forgive them before you’ve fully had time to process whatever happened. This is what I see Juno doing, and I see her teaching Elsa that too. I’d slowly disengage from this friendship altogether if I were you.

  26. Hi LW! Mother of 3yo and a newborn here. I absolutely love your approach for raising children and empowering them. You’ve gotten some great recs for scripts already, but I want to put a plug in for my favorite CD of children’s music: https://acaciasears.bandcamp.com/album/yes-means-yes

    My daughter was having some issues with a boy at her daycare hugging her without her wanting to be hugged, so we played the song “Only Yes Means Yes” for her a lot and started cultivating a culture of consent and telling her it was okay to say no to hugs. Right on, A+ parenting, and it will have great impacts for her life beyond interactions with Elsa.

  27. Mom of an 11 yo. When my daughter was 4 (and 5 and 6), her best friend was often unkind to her. They were at daycare together, so there was less “in the moment” action on our part. However, I found it helped her alot to have us listen to what happened, validate her feelings, and then remind her that she can “opt out” of interacting with her best friend if she needed/wanted to. My daughter always decided that her best friend was worth the price of admission, while still understanding that it wasn’t her fault that her friend didn’t always treat her the way she should be treated. I would think about asking Anna if this price of admission for being friends with Elsa is worth it. In my daughter’s situation, her best friend outgrew some of the bad behavior (or learned better behavior, or both) and they are still best friends and have their lockers right next to each other in middle school. If Anna isn’t that interested in a friendship with Elsa, I would follow her lead.

  28. Similarly aged kid and I’ve found it helpful to bring props for these situations.

    For example: Kid has a meltdown for some reason, so I pull out a sippy cup and some animal crackers. “[Daughter] is upset and needs to sit quietly and eat before she calms down.” It doesn’t need to be a snack! It can be a picture book you guys can read together, or a video you can watch on your phone.

    The point is that it 1) feels less dramatic for parents and kids when Daughter is taking a few minutes to cool down with Mommy, nbd, and 2) parents and kids better understand that there’s a certain time blocked out for the cool down. It tells them “hey, don’t come running over after 30 seconds because we’re only halfway done with our little cool down ritual.”

    Basically, the props act as visual cues to everyone else. I don’t know why suddenly everyone gets it when Daughter has to sit and read a Sandra Boynton book for a bit but not when she needs to sit and be comforted sans-board book. But for whatever reason, the books are very useful in signalling that it’s time to leave my kid alone while she works this out. Also, it’s a great way of teaching self-soothing and self-care.

  29. Parent here. I want to do two things with my comment: 1. Acknowledge how sucky this is. 2. Encourage you by sharing the knowledge that it will pass, sooner than you think.
    1. That stinks. Playdates are hard enough without parents puppeteering their children. Let ’em be! Also I second the ideas of limiting Anna/Elsa time, and subbing in some other kids. And for Anna/Elsa time – hey dads, your turn!
    2. I don’t want to diminish what you’re experiencing, but I want to give you the long view (which I hope will be helpful). I’m going to speak from my history, hoping it’s helpful to you. When my kids were little and starting to make friends, I thought of them being like my friends are to me – that is, long term and prominent in my life. As they grew, and friends shifted rapidly and frequently, I realized “Oh, hey, little kid friends are not like adult friends. They don’t consume much of the kids’ mental life, and they are happy to bop from one kid to another.” It took me several cycles of “new bestie” and me scrambling to make it work on a large scale with each new kid (and stressing about each new bestie’s parents) to realize that they just didn’t care that much. Then I tested a couple of intentional shifts to/away from certain kids (and parents) and the kids were unfazed.
    That’s a long way for me to say: I don’t think Anna will care much if she sees Elsa less frequently. YMMV, but this is what I’ve learned.

    1. I will say that the kid friend thing probably depends on the child. I say this as the parent of a child who is firmly convinced that two girls she hardly ever sees any more are her best friends, on the basis of some toddler playdates in the case of one, and being in preschool with the other (but never having any outside playdates with). She doesn’t think or talk about them regularly, and we almost never see them any more, but she does insist that they are her best friends if she hears their names, despite all other evidence to the contrary.

      That said, I view playdates at this age more as an opportunity to practice *making* friends, which for us is at the moment a more crucial skill for her to learn than *keeping* friends (which she is not in a position to do without adult help). So a bit of promiscuity on the playdate front is desirable.

  30. Parent here, it’s extremely important that Anna knows you have her back. That means, if things get emotionally heated you *physically put yourself between her and Elsa/Elsa’s Mom*. Then you use scripts like “Oops, Anna needs some time to recover. Then things will be fine!” or “Oops, Anna doesn’t have to hug anyone she doesn’t want to.” or “Oops, in our family no one has to hug anyone if they’re not feeling like it right then.”

    The “Oops” is so that everyone knows you’re not mad, these things happen! The rest are boundaries. You are stating them so 1-Anna doesn’t have to (she can’t! She’s too young!) 2- Anna knows what boundary setting looks like, and most importantly 3-Anna knows that you have her back no matter what!

    If physically putting yourself between you and your ‘friend’ doesn’t work (imagine you with one hand around your daughter and the other hand straight out like ✋). Then be prepared to escalate by either 1-taking Anna to the car/bathroom for a bit so she can calm down or 2-announcing in a cheery voice that it looks like it’s time for Anna to go get ice cream/McDonald’s or similar. The point here is that when Anna has a boundary and it gets articulated that is a Good Thing so Good Things should happen. If the friend is just so pushy she won’t respect boundaries then you force a good thing to happen by taking Anna elsewhere for a fun treat.

    The sorts of advice that appears on this page aren’t just things you Should Do, they are things you Must Do. You daughter is getting practice in her feelings not mattering and no one sticking up for her. This Stops Today.

  31. I am a Mum of five, grandmother to five, step mum to three, and step Grandmother to Four boys,so some experience!! Juno sounds like a complete nightmare, NO-ONE has the right to cross these kind of boundaries, if apologies were needed it’s your own responsibility to encourage Anna to do that, not HER.
    And (apart from something dangerous) she has no right to tell your child what to do in ANY -WAY,I am sure you would never say that to any other child, neither should she!..
    My father in law felt it was ok to slap my sons leg when he got too close to a fire, but didn’t tell him that it was dangerous!!, he was four, so I told him in no uncertain terms, that if any smacking needed doing I would do it MYSELF,never did though, I didn’t have too!

  32. Oh, geez, this reminds me so much of an incident from my childhood that has always bothered me (if this is too off-topic, not focused enough on advice, I can delete!)

    When I was 5 or 6, I went to a friend’s birthday party at a place called Panda-monium (think Chuckee Cheese, but with a panda-theme). Someone introduced me to a friend of bday honoree, and she said “Good to meet you and make a new friend” and I, being a blunt little thing, replied, “well, I don’t know you yet, so it might be good to meet you, or it might not!” and then ran off to play in the ball pit.

    Sometime later, my mom corralled me, brought me to the friend of friend, who had been crying for awhile – not sure how long, but it seemed like an inordinate amount of time. I had to apologize, and I was just utterly bewildered about why. I didn’t know this kid! I didn’t know if we were going to be friends! I was just telling the truth! Didn’t she know that not everyone was going to be her friend?

    Needless to say, I did not become friends with her. I’m not sure if that just soured the potential for friendship (entirely possible), but she always did seem like she required a lot of her friends attention (we ended up going to the same school for 6 years).

    In retrospect, that was not a particularly kind thing to say, but it also just seems weird to be forced to apologize for it. Elsa reminds me of that friend of a friend – the need for others to placate her, rather than trying to cope on her own a little.

    1. Yeah, the forced apology is a bit much. Pointing out that you’d been unkind is one thing (kids are often mean! they don’t know how to socialize yet!), but I’m really leery of parents trying to puppeteer their kids’ social interactions to this degree.

    2. I think it’s more that it was a rude thing to say, and if you had been my kid that’s probably what I would have focused on. I spent time with my oldest at that age working on ways to say things that were both honest and appropriately polite, including what thoughts should stay thoughts without becoming words. I probably would’ve asked you to make amends as a lesson to my own kid, not to placate the other kid.

    3. Alright, I have to admit I laughed a little at 6yo you’s line. It reminds me of what my mom once called a ‘Hermione Granger moment.’

      Like, I loved Hermione when I was a kid. Aaaand I was a lot like her. Smart! Determined! A voracious reader, and a fierce defender of smaller kids! But also– blunt, impatient, ruthless, and definitely someone who conveyed, either by my actual words or my tone / body language when I thought the other kids were too stupid / irritating / had nothing to offer.

      And, I had to learn a middle ground. Judging other people by what I was already good at and feeling like it was okay to hurt people’s feelings so long as I was “telling it like it is” could’ve easily led into mean girl territory as I got older. I had to learn patience, and how to see what’s valuable in everyone. That the truest truth is that everybody has something to offer, and that there are ways to set and hold my boundaries around my personal time without insulting other people.

      I, just generally, think there’s a middle ground when it comes to being responsible for others’ feelings, and it can be hard to find where that is. If I make fun of someone for, say, being bad at something, or for being unattractive by traditional standards, and my joke hurts their feelings, then I do think I’m responsible for the hurt I caused and I have some duty to try to heal that hurt and make amends. But on the flip side, if someone is hurt by normal boundaries, then I’m not responsible for their hurt and have no duty to make amends.

      The problem is the gray middle area, where some action may be harmful, but how harmful it is (or is perceived to be) varies by culture and subculture; likewise, what reaction seems reasonable versus overdramatic is going to differ depending on someone’s family culture and their neurology and biology. And, unfortunately, that gray area makes it hard to create rules and standards.

      1. The problem is the gray middle area, where some action may be harmful, but how harmful it is (or is perceived to be) varies by culture and subculture; likewise, what reaction seems reasonable versus overdramatic is going to differ depending on someone’s family culture and their neurology and biology. And, unfortunately, that gray area makes it hard to create rules and standards.

        Too, there’s a possible issue of conflicting needs. I can see that being the case more for Juno than for her child in this scenario – a sort of “I need reassurance that this relationship is still something you wish to engage despite this setback” that’s up against a version of “I need to be given space to have my own feelings and for you to trust that I will return when I am ready.” I don’t know whether either of these is wrong to need, necessarily (and tbh I may be over-projecting from my own life right now) but either way, yeah, learning the difference between when it’s appropriate to take responsibility for making amends for others’ feelings, and when it’s okay for others to be unhappy about where we set our boundaries and that we’re not responsible for managing that hurt/discomfort/unhappiness is pretty important.

        1. “learning the difference between when it’s appropriate to take responsibility for making amends for others’ feelings, and when it’s okay for others to be unhappy about where we set our boundaries and that we’re not responsible for managing that hurt/discomfort/unhappiness is pretty important.”

          Exactly! And, I think what’s frustrating is, people– not just parents and kids, but also adults in conflict, especially adults who are socially aware– want to do the right thing. Nuance can feel like we’re leaving too much room for potential error, so I see a lot of people making hard-and-fast rules (like, “when someone says they’re being bullied, believe them” or the “stepping on my foot” analogy comparing emotional and mental hurt to physical hurt).

          While those specific rules were initially created in response to a specific situation in a specific context, it’s very tempting to want to apply them to all conflicts across the board. So, I’ve seen members of my community do just that in an effort to make a common base to springboard from. Unfortunately, those rules don’t work well outside of their original context, so trying to follow them can escalate an issue rather than resolve it. A response like yours– where people genuinely work to understand and meet *everyone*’s underlying needs, without calling any need “wrong,”–is so much better!

          To bring this around back to LW: while it is probably wise in this case to either dial back on Anna-Elsa playdates or let it be a Dad thing from now on, it can help in the future to try to see if there are ways to meet everyone’s needs: think “third option” rather than a compromise where neither kid gets her needs met. Although, it might be easier for a teacher or a neutral adult to explore in that direction than for a parent of one of the kids.

  33. As a mom of a 5 and 8 year old, I second the solid advice in the article. I am a veteran of awkwardly spending a ton of time around people who happen to have kids around the same time as you. It can be rough. I have three thoughts for you.

    1. What would happen if you said, “well, actually, I wouldn’t want Anna thinking she has to manage Elsa’s feelings for her”? It’s o.k. to be a little prickly. It might mean Juno won’t want to spend as much time around you if you are not always trying to tiptoe around her feelings…which might be just fine? I’m not saying go full bitch on her…just don’t second guess your every word for her comfort.

    2. Time is on your side. As your kid gets older, you will have plenty of chances to reinforce ideas about boundaries and other people’s feelings with all kinds of nuance, and they will become more and more able to understand it. You are doing great work learning this stuff yourself right now! Great job! You will be able to give Anna all kinds of guidance as she grows. It’s not all-or-nothing-right-now.

    3. The universe has set up a Great Slow Fade as kids get older. Once they are in school, most playdates vanish all on their own. You still might see each other at social events, school events, sporting things, but those are way less intense than sitting in someone else’s living room for hours every week. Maybe you are a touch late to the game and you set up your folding chair out of earshot from her. Maybe the auditorium at school is full and a friendly wave across the auditorium is all you can manage. And there are so many buffers! Teachers! Coaches! Ballet instructors! All of them will be helping the girls manage their interactions and you will often literally be on the sidelines. As outside activities kick up for older kids, it takes a concentrated effort on both sides to spend quality time with people. It Gets Better. ❤

  34. Parent, plus years of working gym childcare here.

    Something I caught from the letter and didn’t see addressed yet…

    As adults, when we cause conflict or hurt, we have to be able to recognize what we did, apologize, and look for ways to avoid similar situations in the future.

    In the 3-6 age group, it’s incredibly common for kids to not have figured that out yet, and simply think that a “sorry” will magically make everything better. A super common scenario would be Pat hitting Sammy (whether on purpose or accidentally), I rush over, Pat says (usually to me, not Sammy) “Sorry!” I ask “what are you sorry for doing to Sammy?” Pat looks at me like I sprouted a second head, and says, in a tone of incredulity “I SAID sorry!”

    Sometimes it’s parents not taking the time to teach their kids that when they do something, they have more work to do. Saying “Sorry” is easy, reflecting on what you did and trying to not do it again is much harder. But it’s also because kids at this age still do a lot of magical thinking, and they still have questionable impulse control.

    I spent a lot of time trying to lead certain kids through actually reflecting on what they had done, in an attempt to reduce future occurrences. Easier for me, as the parents weren’t there to get huffy about it.

    As a parent, I’d probably go with scripts like “I heard your ‘Sorry’, Elsa, but that doesn’t make Anna’s knee magically stop hurting. When Anna’s knee stops hurting she might be ready to listen to you.”

    And, actually, on further thought, as a parent in that situation I’d probably make sure that for those conflicts where my kid did something, I would start coaching Anna through “Elsa, I’m sorry I pushed you and you hurt your knee. I’ll try my best to be more careful with my hands.” After a few times, you have better standing to start coaching Elsa through saying the same things to Anna. Elsa wails “I said Sorry but Anna didn’t stop crying!” “What are you sorry for? What are you going to do differently to prevent it from happening again?” Takes all the focus off Elsa’s “hurt feelings” and puts it back on what she did to Anna. And, if that becomes your standard for apologies, I bet Anna will start asking herself if Elsa offers just a “sorry” without further reflection. Either both girls grow in their ability to maturely reflect on their own actions, or Juno gets mad enough because you are correcting her darling that she reduces/cuts off the friendship.

    There’s fantastic scripts above about consent around hugs and choosing what to play, I would just like to throw in that, as much as possible, try to balance the scrips. (as long as you want to maintain the friendship)

    Elsa: crying because Anna doesn’t want to play dolls: “It’s okay for Anna to not want to play dolls. Just like it’s okay for Elsa to not want to play trucks in the sandbox. Why don’t you think about something else fun to do together?” (I suspect that Elsa is turning down just as many hugs/games, but Anna is moving on rather than causing drama. Framing it as ‘consent works both ways’ also cuts Juno off before she can accuse you of blaming Elsa)

    1. This is fantastic. You reminded me of a book called “raising our children, raising ourselves”. The author is a psychotherapist & the book is mainly teaching parents how to listen to and empathise with children’s feelings. There’s a bit where she says that parents say to her “I did that and it didn’t work”, meaning “I listened and empathised and my child didn’t magically stop having those feelings”. My impression is that Juno wants the nasty feelings to go away like magic, or at least for someone else to have to deal with them.

  35. Juno is trying to teach Elsa that it’s ok–and often good, even–to tell your friends when they’re hurting you. This is a good life lesson, but it needs a lot more nuance than Juno is giving it. There’s a difference between “You did this hurtful thing” and “You did this reasonable thing, and I’m upset about it for reasons of my own”; the former is reasonable to share and ask for a change, while the latter is our own thing to handle. Juno seems to have missed the difference entirely (in her lessons to her daughter and also possibly in her own social skills, it sounds like).

    You, on the other hand, want to teach Anna to set reasonable boundaries with her friends. This is also an excellent life skill. What if you model the behavior you want her to learn? If Juno is telling Elsa to apologize when Anna actually needs some space to process first, you can tell Juno/Elsa that Anna needs alone time to calm down and she should try again later. If Juno is prompting Elsa to tell Anna that she feels sad when Anna doesn’t want hugs, you can use that as a moment to teach Anna that sometimes people are sad even though you didn’t do anything wrong, that it’s not your fault or your job to fix it when that happens, and that it’s OK to say “But I don’t want hugs right now. Let’s play on the slide instead!”

    Juno might not be thrilled about you doing these things. (If she doesn’t understand the difference mentioned above, she might not even understand what you’re trying to teach Anna, or why it’s a valid and appropriate lesson.) But that doesn’t mean you can’t teach it–and maybe your lessons to your daughter will help both Juno and Elsa figure out some better social skills as well.

    ….Alternatively, if that sounds like too much work and too much potential conflict, fill up your schedule with playdates with other kids instead. You won’t see Juno and Elsa as often, so hopefully you’ll start to drift apart over time. The girls are four–they’ll make new friends just fine. And your husbands are adults who can manage their own socializing, regardless of whether their wives are close or not.

    1. The more I think about this, the more I think that the kids are a red herring. Elsa and Anna are four year olds. It’s normal at that age to be figuring out things like “What happens when my friend doesn’t want to do what I want to do?” and “What do I do when I accidentally hurt my friend?” If left to their own devices, they’d probably figure it out more often than not, and develop social skills in the process.

      The problem is that that’s not happening. Rather, Juno is actively teaching her kid how socializing should go. And even that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except Juno–who you note “has terrible boundaries/communication skills” and “has a tendency to sulk/storm off/dole out the silent treatment/expect everyone to manage HER emotions”–is teaching based on the the social skills model she herself uses.

      So the root problem is that Juno’s social skill set is deeply flawed. And really, do you want to keep hanging out with someone like that? Is that the behavior that you want your kid to see the adults around her modeling? I’m guessing the answer is no. If you indeed don’t want that, you have two options. The first is “fix Juno’s social skills” (You can try! but it’s a lot of work and will only succeed if Juno gets on board, so maybe consider not unless you have a real excess of free time and energy and patience in your life). The second is “stop hanging out so much with Juno” (or at least “cut way back on the amount of Juno in your life”). Fill up your social calendar with playdates with other friends. Schedule some daddy-daughter activities if Anna asks to see Elsa. Be sociable when you see Juno at hobby events (since it sounds like you can’t easily avoid that) but “sooo busy, can’t schedule anything right now!” if she tries to set up a playdate with you. You don’t have to spend tons of time with Juno just because Anna and Elsa get along.

    2. This is the comment I was trying to formulate. As a kid I would never have dreamed of telling another kid I was upset they were upset I accidentally hurt them. However, I would also never have dreamed of telling them I was upset they teased me about liking an older kid, or didn’t do their share on a group project, or took my journal without asking and wrote in it that I was a drama butthead.

      “If you’re feeling upset, you should tell your friend how you feel” is, out of context, a good lesson. I suspect you’re right that Juno somehow never learned the appropriate context for it.

  36. Yeah, that’s a tricky one. My daughter is 4.5 now and like: on the one hand, I want her to be able to articulate her feelings and have the language to talk about them. But she does do the ‘that hurts my feelings’ thing (mostly on me and her dad, at least for now) over things like ‘don’t hit your brother’ or ‘don’t scribble on the walls in marker’. We’re trying to do the balancing act of validating hurt feelings without excusing bad behavior (‘I’m sorry that you feel unhappy, but you still can’t hit your little brother with blocks, how about you take a break and come back when you’re feeling calmer’) but it’s tough. And she’s very VERY sensitive to being told that she messed up, so that makes it hard. I sympathize with the difficulty that Juno is dealing with, but she’s handling it very badly.

    LW, ultimately there’s a limit to how much you can change Elsa’s behavior; it’s on her parents to handle this, and it doesn’t sound like they are. You could try telling Juno, “Look, I recognize that Elsa’s feelings are hurt, but she needs to be able to give Anna some space.” But from what you’ve said, I don’t know that there’s any way for that conversation to go down that won’t cause at least some tension.

    FWIW, I would recommend helping your daughter with scripts that she can use herself and encouraging her to have the confidence to set her own boundaries with her playmates. Like, absolutely be there and back her up, but 4-5 is old enough to start practicing dealing with those kind of interpersonal issues herself and it’s going to be a lot easier for her to work up to it when she has her mom right there.

    And definitely, DEFINITELY let the dudes who actually get along with each other supervise playdates. There’s no reason you have to be stuck dealing with someone you dislike all the time if they get to do Fun Grownup Hangouts and skip out of the playdates.

  37. Mom here who routinely deploys the phrase “One thing at a time, please” to great effect. Even my 3 year old can usually remember that he needs to wait for mom’s attention when I say this. It’s simple and direct but it also tells the child that they WILL get your attention, but they will get it when it is available to them, not just any time they demand it. They are going to be heard and their needs will be met, even if it isn’t exactly in this moment.

    This can be a great phrase to redirect Elsa and buy yourself enough time to help Anna process whatever she needs to process without the faux urgency that Juno is demanding. And THAT, I think, is the real root of the problem-the faux urgency. It completely smothers your ability to set and enforce a boundary in the moment and Juno has made clear that she has no respect for boundaries, even when a situation has calmed down.

    Incidentally, I started using this phrase with my kids when I was getting out of my marriage with their dad who was both abusive and manipulative. Anytime there was a situation where I should have expressed a boundary, he would come at me with something that was just so urgent! and important! that simply had to be dealt with in exactly that moment! He would be chattering away at me so much that I couldn’t think, much less get a word in edgewise that hey dude-that thing you just did was not nice and I would like you not to do that again.

    If I brought up The Thing at a later time? Either he didn’t remember it or I was just “bringing up the past to punish him.” In other words, he had no intention of changing his behavior or respecting my boundaries at all. But I spent years confused by what was happening to me because he would fake a sense of urgency Every. Single. Time. I had a boundary to set and I just flailed around trying to set boundaries instead of recognizing that the real issue was that he wasn’t going to respect them no matter what. I suspect that Juno is the same. I suspect that the reason she pushes Elsa into Anna’s space so quickly whenever Elsa is “upset” is because she is being absolutely as manipulative as you think she is.

    The best thing I ever learned in therapy was that the most manipulative and emotionally abusive people are the best at getting away with what they do because they will never admit that their intentions are nefarious. And people who are not emotionally abusive or manipulative think we need some kind of “proof” that their intentions are bad before we are allowed to cut them loose. But you can catch them before you get too caught up if you pay attention to the way they make you feel. For me, the giant red flags that someone is manipulating me are that I feel confused and smothered when I try to assert a boundary. That sounds like how you and Anna feel around Juno and Elsa. I recommend paying attention to that feeling.

    And try “one thing at a time, please.” Either it will teach Juno and Elsa to back off the faux urgency so that you can deal with Elsa’s actual feelings in the appropriate time…..or it will reveal that the faux urgency has always been the point of that particular interaction. And at least it may help you understand the true motivation for Juno’s behavior.

  38. Related question as this thread struck a cord (please delete if too much of a tangent) – what would your advice be to Juno if the kid wasn’t generally sensitive but just ended up in tears (emotional hurts) in most play dates with Anna. My daughter is pretty easy going but her little “best friend” seems to often hurt her feelings – invite her over to play just to tell her she can’t touch any toys or abruptly leaving a playdate for no articulated reason and refusing to walk out of the park together. I hate seeing my little girl in tears and distraught but she seems too easy going to say “I don’t want to play with her any more.” The girls do seem to have a strong connection but maybe I need to enforce a break up? Should I say anything to the parents who are perfectly nice acquaintances or just gently fade out? I don’t need to keep this relationship for any reason but maybe I need to give my kid the agency to manage this situation? – WorriedMom

    1. I guess, does the break have to be forever? You could decide to give yourself & your kid a break (without really phrasing it as such, just, Be Busy For A While Doing Other Stuff and see if your kid misses the friend or asks about her). It doesn’t have to be so black & white.

    2. Have you asked your daughter directly whether she wants to play with her friend anymore? And have you let your daughter know that she doesn’t HAVE to be friends or have playdates or whatever with this specific friend? We did this with our daughter, because of a similar issue (though it was at daycare, not voluntary play dates). The other part is to acknowledge when your daughter’s friend isn’t being kind or friendly (or whatever language you use with your kid) when talking about what happened with your daughter. If she still wants to be friends and do stuff, then you can navigate from there. Maybe try playdates where there are multiple kids around (unless her friend is good at marshaling the others to pick on/exclude your daughter)? Sending good thoughts (’cause this parenting gig is HARD).

    3. I’d take several steps back from this friendship for your daughter for a little while. Like the Captain said, just be super busy for a while, let the kids mature more, and then try again in 6 months. You didn’t say how old your daughter is, but she may not have the vocabulary to manage this relationship. Too much “agency” in these tricky friendships can lead to a kid thinking “It’s my fault this friendship is tricky. The adults don’t get involved, so this means nothing is wrong, because adults get involved when things are really wrong. So that means it must be *me* that is wrong”.

      Also, consider that you are modeling “I won’t put up with bad treatment” behavior for your daughter. She will run into people like this again and again in life, especially in romantic partners. One day, they think you are fab! The next day, they refuse to be seen walking out of the park with you. Some of this is little kid nonsense, where the friend is experimenting with their power to influence the feelings of their friend. It’s a common behavior in a certain age range (from what I’ve seen), but it still needs addressing and doesn’t need to be tolerated. Your daughter will learn how to remove herself from this ugly dynamic and the friend will learn that not everyone will tolerate the Diva behavior.

      I have no fancy degree to back this up. It’s just what we experienced with a “friend” that enjoyed snubbing my kid and making him cry, because she liked the power trip. My son took it very hard and thought that it must be *his* fault that Friend was always teasing and snubbing him. We took a long, long break from Friend, and Friend was very surprised and upset that my kid told her “You aren’t very nice to me, so I am not going to play with you today” when they saw each other last.

      1. I’m a parent (9, 6, 3) and I live in a teeny tiny town (seriously, so small) and I’m gong to suggest taking a break and *not* trying again in 6 months. I’ve done it! It feels, here, like it’s almost not allowed to draw a boundary of “you and your kid are both stressing me out” and it felt mean to me to not even tell the other mom why- just, suddenly, I was always busy/ never bothered to schedule time to get together/ always had to leave the playground when this other person showed up. I encourage the LW to be as kind to herself as she is to her kid. LW, sometimes it just doesn’t work. And even in a small town, it can be okay to have boundaries! (One of the moms I faded is a) my neighbor, b) my former babysitter, and c) also in the only knitting group in town. I’m pleasant when we meet, but ‘sometime’ somehow never comes around…)

  39. So many thoughtful and constructive comments here. I just wanted to add that it’s been really helpful for me as a parent to get in the habit of saying to my children “we’ll deal with the feelings first, then the problem”. It helps us when, for example, my second child tends to react massively to everything and my oldest tends to say “oh, fine, whatever” and give her sister whatever she wants just to shut her up. My instinct is to hear crying and.wade straight in with some blame and some instructions about how to resolve things, and saying that sentence out loud helps to hold me back from doing that as much as it helps the children. As an only child, I find sibling relationships really weird and it’s hard for me to believe that two people who are yelling and crying will be able to calm down and sort things out without my intervention; but my experience is that once they’ve dealt with the anger/sadness/whatever, solving the original issue is easy. My job is just giving silent hugs, or listening to then let off steam, or whatever, until they’re ready to talk to each other.

    This isn’t to say that it’s not ok to say “we need to talk about what you just did and how I felt about it”. Just that we can’t do that bit until we all feel calmer. As a psychologist I’d add that a distressed person isn’t in a good state for thinking or learning through words, so as tempting as it is to seize the teaching opportunity (“see what happens when you do that thing I told you not to do!”), it’s not effective.

  40. So many thoughtful and constructive comments here. I just wanted to add that it’s been really helpful for me as a parent to get in the habit of saying to my children “we’ll deal with the feelings first, then the problem”. It helps us when, for example, my second child tends to react massively to everything and my oldest tends to say “oh, fine, whatever” and give her sister whatever she wants just to shut her up. My instinct is to hear crying and.wade straight in with some blame and some instructions about how to resolve things, and saying that sentence out loud helps to hold me back from doing that as much as it helps the children. As an only child, I find sibling relationships really weird and it’s hard for me to believe that two people who are yelling and crying will be able to calm down and sort things out without my intervention; but my experience is that once they’ve dealt with the anger/sadness/whatever, solving the original issue is easy. My job is just giving silent hugs, or listening to then let off steam, or whatever, until they’re ready to talk to each other.

    This isn’t to say that it’s not ok to say “we need to talk about what you just did and how I felt about it”. Just that we can’t do that bit until we all feel calmer. As a psychologist I’d add that a distressed person isn’t in a good state for thinking or learning through words, so as tempting as it is to seize the teaching opportunity (“see what happens when you do that thing I told you not to do!”), it’s not effective.

  41. Pediatrician specializing in child development/behavior/emotions

    One thing I tell families about, including kids who are old enough, is the “thinking brain” and the “feeling brain.” For a 4-5 yo I might say “talking brain” rather than “thinking.” The idea is that when feelings get very big, the “talking brain” turns off for a little while. Talking doesn’t work very well when the feeling brain is busy having big sad or scared or angry or hurt feelings. I use this to explain to parents why it doesn’t work to have a big discussion about behavior with an upset young child.

    After the feeling brain calms down, then talking works again. This could be talking as in giving/accepting an apology, or for making a plan to share a toy, or for a parent and child discussing behavior.

    This has the advantage of being rooted in science (the frontal cortex, the amygdala) which means the explanation sometimes clicks with parents who were escalating problems by trying to get their child to talk, obey, apologize, etc, right then and there. It may be something that could click with Anna, Elsa, and/or Juno. The idea here would be that Anna’s “feeling brain” is busy and that she will be ready for talking later. Also that Elsa is having a lot of big feelings and maybe could work on getting her thinking brain back before talking and playing again. Both girls could even have a signal (like a thumbs up) when they feel ready again.

    1. Just chiming in to +1 this comment and to say that I’ve seen a similar method work wonders with all ages – I’ve used Dan Siegal’s ‘Hand model of the brain’ to great effect.

  42. Parent and pedagogy student here;

    First of all, dear LW, just like The Captain said your questions were very good and universally informative. Children and adults alike struggle with managing emotions. You are not a painful person in any way! Jedi hugs if you want them!

    The Captain’s answers were very, very good and it sounds like your reason and instincts are serving you well: Elsa’s (and her mother’s) feelings are not yours to manage. When my daughter was the same age as Anna and Elsa I also struggled with this, not because other parents were demanding it but because my daughter took it upon herself to try to make everyone around her happy and that is absolutely too much for an adult let alone a 4-5 year old child still learning to even recognize all the emotions they are feeling.

    I am just an internet stranger, I do not know you nor Juno but from your letter I got the impression that Juno might be repeating a pattern which her parents used when raising her up. Her models are clearly not working very well but this is indeed not your responsibility. Please, do not second guess yourself: your thoughts and concerns expressed in your letter sound valid and beneficial to Anna. She is still very young, learning the basics of human interaction – and I agree with you, this is a fantastic age to tell her about consent and also to help her to learn to enforce her own boundaries. I completely agree with your thoughts related to hugging; it is a very good concept for explaining what consent means. This might also be a perfect opportunity to discuss why people hug (usually because they really like someone or because it is comforting) and if the other person does not feel like hugging at the moment there are other ways to convey the message, like saying it out loud: “I like you a lot” or “I feel like I would need some comforting”. In any case learning to connect words with feelings and thoughts are very important for children; this is something the kindergarten teachers are especially concentrating at the moment here in Scandinavia. I am currently studying pedagogy in addition to my studies in biology (yes, I am very much interested in teaching biology).

    I might have one additional suggestion to how Anna and Elsa might continue meeting each other (if you consider this worth the effort): how about if they would both try a hobby group for children? They could enjoy the activity together and Juno would not be interfering with how you raise Anna. Do you have activities like this available in where you live? Here in Scandinavia there are many such possibilities available, for example the Lutheran church offers activity groups for children.

    I completely agree with your thoughts on the effects of Juno’s teachings might have on Elsa but I do not want to delve deeper in this. Anna is yours; concentrate on raising her up just like you are doing – and how about getting to know other parents and children in your area?

    Best of luck to you and Anna! I wish I could send you reindeer but they are kind of big and stubborn.

  43. As a parent of a two-year-old and a professional with a Ph.D. in child psychology, I totally benefit from hearing about things like this. Because what would I do? I have no idea. Probably the avoidant slow-fade just so I don’t have to deal with it. Which is neither solution-focused nor what your kid wants, though, right? Okay, so maybe I’d need a plan B.

    A couple of good reading suggestions: T. Berry Brazelton’s Touchpoints 3-6 (a true classic, and probably no one in the history of ever has done more than Brazelton to get pediatricians to think about child development) may have some good ideas about how kids at this age operate. He’s famously pointed out that the kid who does the biting (or in this case, roughhousing or whatever else) is probably even more frightened and overwhelmed by how it turned out than the kid who gets bitten, and needs as much or more comforting. So it’s not that Elsa is way out of line, but it’s the adult (Juno) who needs to step in and comfort Elsa. Another good one is The Explosive Child, by Ross Greene. Not that either child here is ‘explosive’, but it’s really applicable to any kid who needs to negotiate any conflict with any adult or other kid (or for that matter, I sometimes use this method with other adults…). It describes each participant (in this case each kid) stating their ‘concern’, then trying to come up with a solution that meets both individuals’ needs. Then the LW can have some structure to fall back on, “Hey, I’ve been trying this thing, have you read X? I think it’s going to be really helpful for Anna, let’s try it when the girls get together.”

    Or have the dads get the girls together, honestly that’s the best plan here by far. One thing I have figured out is that there’s less than zero chance that one parent can alter another parent’s parenting, so if the goal is to reduce the degree to which Juno teaches Elsa to get her friends to fix her emotions for her, give up now. If it happens in front of you, it’s a dominant message at home too, and just having that message reinforced a couple fewer times per week won’t be enough. I do want the LW to give herself 100% permission not to try to shift that dynamic at all, as uncomfortable as it may be to watch.

  44. Hi. I’ve never commented before but I just want to preach the gospel of Daniel Tiger. I find that the episodes have little short songs I can sing to my kiddo about his emotions. Their episode about apologies is relevant here. It teaches kids to say I’m sorry and how can I help.

    There is also an episode about how sometimes your friends don’t want to play with you and thats ok. It was so against how I was socialized that I found it hard to watch but that’s why it’s so important!

    Anyway, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood ftw!

  45. I’ve taught my kids that they can say “thank you” to someone apologizing- acknowledges it without accepting it/or seeming to erase the action like “that’s okay” can.
    If your child is upset and you’re comforting her, I would say to Elsa that Anna needs a little space and time to feel better.
    I would practice with Anna a few scripts, “No thank you” to hugs, or “I want to play by myself for a while” (which is perfectly during a playdate). “I’m sorry you feel sad” might work, depending on what exactly is happening.

  46. LW, the Captain’s advice is all solid, but I gotta say, as a mother of two, I think I’d just phase out playdates with Elsa, were I in your shoes.

    Your kid won’t even remember who her best friend was when she was four in ten years. And honestly, if Juno isn’t receptive to even the most gently worded suggestions that her and her child’s emotions are their own to manage… do you need this angst and drama in your life? Does your kid? Is whatever joy she’s getting out of playing with her friend worth your kid learning that family’s toxic emotional patterns? Is it worth you being stressed before, during, and after these play dates? How much would your life improve if you took her to playdate with a different friend (who will also be forgotten in ten years) where you didn’t have to deal pushing back against this mommy/daughter emotional drama every. single. time.?

    Kudos to you for recognizing the inherent unhealthy dynamic at play, and for wanting to protect your kid from it.

    1. This is an excellent point. We moved when my oldest was 5, and four years later he barely remembers the names of his best friends from preschool.

  47. This is all so good.
    My 7 year old gets really worked about things but gets over them really fast, as long as you hold firm, but it’s hard to hold firm. I think there’s a lot here to help me with this. Thanks letter writer, the good Captain, and all the commenters.

  48. Teacher and summer camp counselor, here. I had a kid at camp, really not good at respecting boundaries. He constantly tried to give hugs to his best friend even when they weren’t wanted. I told him that everyone’s body is their own and if they don’t want to be touched, then you don’t touch them. I also suggested to his friend, that maybe he offer a high five or fist bump instead.

    I do the high five or fist bump with my nephew too. My BIL was trying to force the kid to hug me, which made me really uncomfortable. Now, we fist bump.

    Maybe Anna, if she wants to, of course, could offer Elsa a high five or fist bump in lieu of a hug. It’s also okay to just wave.

  49. One of the things I’ve tried with my closing-on-6-year-old is that when we make mistakes we have to say sorry and do what we can to make things right. So making messes doesn’t end with the apology, it ends with the cleaning up, for example. Taking someone’s toy requires both apologizing and giving it back – or replacing it if we broke it. At this point I don’t think he quite gets the whole idea of “being ready to forgive” but he can get that someone (or himself!) is still mad and needs some time to calm down.

    I’m not sure he totally gets it but it dovetails with other stuff. Like just because mommy and/or daddy are upset doesn’t mean they don’t love you. How if you push maybe you need to go take a moment over there to sit and calm down. Oh, this toy is getting you too frustrated and upset? I think it needs to take a little time out to rest and we’ll come back and play with it later.

    We haven’t gotten exactly this sort of wound-up performance because someone wouldn’t just accept an apology and let everything go back to where it was, but we have had a few incidents where boyo has simply said SORRY! louder and louder. Which is both frustrating and hilarious. But since he had heard many times about needing a minute to calm down he could understand – or at least accept – that someone might still be upset and need some time to stop being mad, maybe go play somewhere else for a minute and they’ll let you know when they’re ready to play with you again.

    Maybe you can’t do as much of this with Elsa, depending on whether you have the sort of parent relationship where you can correct/direct each other’s kids. But you can just use the standard Captain-type advice where you state your/Anna’s feelings, not attribute anything to Elsa, and make statement about what you’re doing – we’re going to take a walk so she can calm down – rather than make a request or open it up to discussion.

  50. I joke that I do not encourage apologies on demand so that I don’t accidentally raise a psychopath or two – to soften my condemnation of the practice as manipulative. I do try to teach my kids boundary-setting by helping them identify what they need and how to meet that need themselves or requesting help, and by recognizing when something doesn’t feel ok. Juno is demanding that LW and LW Jr. do the work of pleasing/soothing Juno and Juno Jr., and LW taking the time and space for LW Jr. to identify and meet her own needs with Mom’s help is crucial to push back against those interactions and others in the future. Imagine any of our kids as teens with a romantic partner or friend who makes emotion-based demands of them and the manipulation involved. If our kids know to take a step back, and take responsibility for themselves, they will be more resistant to it. And I say this especially as a parent of boys since as a social worker I work with sooooo many manchildren who have never been held responsible for identifying and meeting their own needs :/

    1. Exactly! I never told my kids to apologize bc you’re ordering them to have and express a feeling they may not have. Which is weird. If my child did a wrong thing the amends was focused more on what can I do rather than what I ‘should’ feel.

      1. I think there is a point, though, where kids have to learn that some social rituals like apologies are required regardless of how you really feel. Kids can understand that there is a difference between saying “I’m sorry” — required as a first step to making someone you’ve hurt feel better, although often not the only step — and literally feeling sorry, which isn’t required. Similarly, saying “thank you” is a required social ritual in a lot of circumstances, whether or not you actually feel grateful.

        Sometimes it can be helpful to explain the difference between feelings and manners to kids very straightforwardly: “You don’t have to feel a certain way to say you’re sorry. It’s the polite thing to say when you’ve hurt someone.” But you can also make it clear that saying “I’m sorry” isn’t magic, and unless the hurt is very minor and accidental, they may need to do more than apologize in order to make things right.

    2. I can understand that, but feel ‘sorry’ is part of necessary social lubrication that is politeness. Apologizing acknowledges that you did something that caused another person pain or discomfort- and while a two year old may sound extremely happy while saying it (and thus a future frog killer) I feel that it’s a start down the path of understanding how one’s actions affect others.
      I do disagree with the “I’m sorry! That’s ok!” closed loop. It’s often not ok right away, and a crying child who just got hit, even by accident, is allowed to be hurt and not make someone else feel better.

  51. Parent of 2 girls, one very empathetic/outward focused, and one very goal-oriented/inner- directed.

    These are all great suggestions! I’d add a couple of possibilities:

    1) Talk to Anna in quiet times about the fact that it’s not her job to make Elsa feel better, or give hugs if she doesn’t want to. Talk about what being kind and being mean are like. Even 4-5 year olds can start grasping that “Elsa is unhappy” does not equal “I was mean.”

    2) You can address and correct Elsa directly in the moment. We’re all loath to do that when the other parent is present, but you aren’t criticizing Elsa, you’re encouraging her. “No, honey. Not right now. You are okay. You can go to your mom and wait a minute until Anna feels better. You can talk to her in a little while, and it will be fine. It’s okay to be sad. Go on, go be with your mom.”

    This child desperately needs someone to tell her you can survive bad feelings! And your child needs to hear your assurance that Elsa isn’t going to die of the sads. The thing that will counteract guilt is your response to the situation.

    3. Feel free to be firmer with Elsa’s mom. She is a grown woman, and she’s being inappropriately pushy with your child. “Not right now. Anna needs some space, and this isn’t helping. Please keep Elsa with you until she settles down.”

    If Elsa’s mom gets offended (which she may well do), it will be that much easier to fade out. It’s not your job to caretake her feels anymore than it’s Anna’s job to caretake her daughter’s.

  52. I taught young children (younger than Anna and Elsa) for about a decade, and what Juno is teaching her daughter (and trying to teach your daughter) honestly freaks me out a bit. I know we can’t fix Juno or Elsa here, but I really don’t think her approach is healthy or okay for anyone involved.

    LW, you are not the asshole here, and I think it’s great that you’re taking this seriously. Anna is trying to learn how to manage HER body, HER emotions, HER boundaries, and also how to be kind and respectful to others at the same time. But the thing is, at that age, we learn how to be kind and respectful to others by FIRST being kind and respectful to ourselves, NOT by being forced to manage someone else’s feelings.

    Anna does not have to accept an apology – and Elsa doesn’t have to give one unless it’s sincere.
    Anna does not have to let anyone touch her when she doesn’t want to be touched – and Elsa is allowed to be sad if her hug is rejected.
    LW and Juno do not have to be friends – and Anna and Elsa will be FINE.

    My preferred method of small-child-conflict-resolution is just about facilitating the conversation between the children, when THEY want to have that conversation. Helping them find the words to say, figuring out what would actually make them feel better, making sure we stay on-topic… just mediating between them. And I’m talking about doing this with 2 year olds, so if it was successful for them, I’m sure Anna and Elsa can handle it.

    So if Anna gets hurt and Elsa is upset, the appropriate thing to do is to coach Elsa to 1) give Anna some time to calm down, she’s hurt, then 2) ask “is there anything I can do?”

    Then it’s Anna’s turn to figure out what she needs and wants right then. Does she want a hug? Can Elsa help get her an ice pack or bandage? Does she want Elsa to just leave her alone for a little while? Would she like an apology (if Elsa actually did something wrong)? All of those are perfectly acceptable responses, and even the “leave me alone” one isn’t MEAN. Even adults need alone time to recover from being hurt.

    There are ways to work through all of Elsa’s possible responses to this, but the one I’m guessing is most likely is: MELTDOWN CITY. And at that point: aim her at her parent and let them manage their child’s emotions. If Juno sends her back to Anna, you are 100% in your rights to say “No thank you, Elsa. We can talk later.” And frankly, you’re 100% in your rights to physically pick up your child and walk away with her if Elsa and Juno won’t give you any peace.

    Allowing this to go on isn’t going to teach either Juno OR Elsa how to be better friends, so you have to focus on teaching your daughter what’s important. Number one: boundaries. Managing her OWN feelings first. And knowing what to do when someone tramples all over both her boundaries and her feelings.

    (I’m leaving out a lot of thoughts and probably miswrote some of the ones I shared here because I’m in a bit of a rush, but LW: you are so, so, so not the jerk in this scenario.)

  53. Why try to support a kid-friendship when you have said you do NOT trust the other parent to watch your kid? At age 4-5, kid and parent are fairly intertwined. There’s really no way to separate the kid relationship from the parent. Juno, the person you don’t trust to be alone with your kid, is going to be there in some capacity.

    If I can’t trust someone to be around my kid, then we don’t hang out with that person. FULL STOP. Find some different kids for your daughter to play with.

    Juno is a broken stair and she’s teaching her kid how to be a broken stair.

  54. I find myself often saying, “I’m sorry your brother doens’t want to play superheroes right now. You two will have to either play separately for a while or work together to come up with a game you BOTH want to play,’ My boys are 4 & 5 and this response works. They are learning that sometimes our siblings/friends dont’ want to do the same things we do – and that it’s OK! They also learn to start solving their own problems.

    Juno is a mess. Methinks what’s actually happening here is that SHE is the one being “rejected” because, hey, I had my kid apologize and if your kid isn’t acknowledging it, then you, LW aren’t acknowledging my good parenting. Which is hogwash. And by the way when parents insist that their kid apologize, all that teaches the kid is that you say “I’m sorry” just so you wont’ get in trouble. I point out to my boys what they did wrong or how they hurt the other person. Once it’s clear they understand I suggest, “Maybe you need to have a conversation with her” and let them work up the nerve and come up with their own “something” to say. And I tell them that sometimes we say I’m sorry, but what we did was so hurtful that the other person might not be ready to be our friend again and that’s part of the consequences of hurting others is that we might lose a friend for a while.

  55. Parent of a 2.5-year-old here. In your shoes I would stop having playdates with Elsa and Juno. There are lots of great suggestions here about how to teach Elsa to be more respectful of Anna when Anna is the wounded party, and all those suggestions will be absolutely useless because you aren’t Elsa’s parent, and Elsa’s parent is teaching Elsa to put her own feelings first and make everyone cater to them. If Elsa were 10 or 13, you could probably be a really useful role model and give her a lot to think about, and maybe she would decide that your way seems better than her mom’s way. At 5, with only occasional contact? Not a chance.

    I encourage you to shift your thinking from “How can I manage playdates with Elsa such that Anna is minimally miserable and maybe Elsa learns some manners?” to “Which kids we know would Anna be happiest playing with?”. If Elsa’s not high on that list, arrange to spend time with someone else. You’re trying to preserve contact with Juno “for the sake of the kids”, but also her kid makes your kid really unhappy! Whose sake is it for, then? It sounds like Juno is the only one who wins here.

    You don’t have to manage Juno’s (and Elsa’s) feelings. You don’t even have to be around their feelings. You can teach Anna by example that sometimes the best thing to do is to walk away and make plans with people whose company you like better. Even in a close-knit small town, I’m sure there are lots of parents you don’t hang out with and lots of kids your kid doesn’t hang out with. Put Juno and Elsa on that list.

  56. LW: you are not an a… hole. You sound like you have a firm grasp here of what’s going on and what course to take. It sounds like you maybe are just looking for confirmation. Taking time for Anna doesn’t mean you are not being kind to Elsa. It also sounds like you won’t be getting a lot of help from Juno. Do what cap says. Smaller doses. Fade out? I mean these kids are young you can expose Anna to other playmates and just slow fade. Sorry for Elsa but this isn’t your ball. Another thing you could try for the elsa’s in your future: when parents are proving helpless or problematic. Imagine both kids are yours, or that you are babysitting: what would you say to Elsa then? You’d probably validate her feelings too. Then you might give her a quick cuddle and tell her that Anna needs a moment, and this is something we do for folks when they’re sad. Then you might distract Elsa with an innocuous question: hey nice shoes! Did you tie those yourself? Awesome! Or similar. Little kids are easily distractabke. Maybe sit her on your other side if appropriate so they are separate but both have your attention. But consider that Juno is going to be problematic in future and maybe slow fade also. You’ve got this though! You see things very clearly.

  57. Hello LW,
    mother of three children here.

    First, I’d like to tell you that you sound awesome! Validating your child’s feelings, giving her time to calm down/work things out – I think this alone is giving your child a sort of shield, because you teach to feel herself, listen to herself.

    The captain’s advise is awesome, as always. I’d like to add (I hope I don’t say anything that has already been said, I couldn’t read all the comments due to THE CHILDREN…): What I find helpful in situations like these (and I am awkward as hell and bad with boundaries/telling people “no”, but I try to get over it for my children’s sake), is a) “mirroring” and b) (kind of like the captain said) placing myself in the middle to give my kid some space.
    Like, I don’t know how your child wails, but when mine really get going, picking them up and taking them somewhere is not really an option; they need to be left there, sometimes they don’t want to be touched, (and I try not picking them up without their consent, which sometimes they can’t give in these situations, because they can’t/won’t hear me etc.), so then, if someone (…”well-meaning”…) comes up and talks to my child, I kind of place myself in the middle (just really sitting down in front of her sometimes), shielding her, trying to keep the other person out of her focus – ignoring them.
    With “mirroring” I mean repeating the child’s emotions back at them. I found this to be helpful when they are younger, like when they scream about something, anything, to help them sort out what exactly they are feeling, but it also works with other children.
    Elsa: Want a hug!
    Anna: (walks away)
    Elsa: Huuuug! (starts to cry)
    You: (placing yourself in the middle, to Elsa): You really want a hug.
    Elsa: Yeees! Anna should give me one.
    You: Anna doesn’t want to.
    Elsa: But I want to.
    You: Anna doesn’t want to.
    Repeat. Console Elsa (if you want and she lets you), but just repeat.

    I do realise that Elsa is not really the problem here, but like the commenters before me, I don’t think you’ll get through to Juno. I do think it’s important to protect your child against these manipulations and maaaaaybe showing Elsa (and Juno, though I doubt it) in the process how things could be done.

    LW, I think you are totally right – Juno’s behavior is bad and it IS a big deal. I’m kind of sad for Elsa, but, again, also not yours to manage. Reassure your daughter, try to shield her when it’s really bad, talk maybe afterward. Jedi-hugs if you want to!

  58. I’m terrible with handling drama with other parents, so I don’t (the mom of one of dc2’s classmates drives to another bus stop to avoid me because I suggested not parking right where the bus is supposed to stop). Another vote for let the dads do play dates or slow fade out entirely, or maybe larger play dates including another sensible parent as a buffer. You’re much better than I, or you would never have seen this woman again after the keys incident, but is it really worth the effort, even in a small town?

  59. Parent here to an 8-year-old and two 5-year-olds – I love the scripts. I would add to it (maybe after an incident where you separate the kids) that you think separating them makes it easier on everyone as then they aren’t feeding off each other so they can both calm down quickly. But yeah, with my three kids, one will hurt another by accident and the hurt one tends to get over it way before the one who did the hurting sometimes. And I am careful to explain that it isn’t the hurt child’s job to soothe them and that the hurt child will be taken care of first, then them. It sucks when you hurt someone and you do feel bad, but taking it out on the person you hurt is WRONG and something that is a big problem in our society as we all know from dealing with sexist, racist, etc. assholes who want the people they are bigots against to soothe them. Screw that noise!

    And I very much agree with framing the hugging thing as a consent issue, that is what I do and what daycare/schools/etc. are mostly really great about doing now, so it should not be a new concept to the other parent. As far as not agreeing to play a certain game, sometimes with kids that young, they need a little help with figuring out how to compromise or figure out a game they both want to play. Don’t be afraid to offer some suggestions to help them get there. With my kids, one will want to play school, the other unicorns, the other superheros, so I will suggest they figure out how to combine the games or suggest things until they come up with something they all want to play. Now they often combine games on their own without prompting from me. And if the other parents gets irritated by you helping – say that you are teaching them how to compromise because it is true and something parents should help teach their kids!

    Good luck, it is tough whenever multiple parent/kid groups get together, even when everyone is relatively on the same page, there will still be conflicts and parents left feeling that other parents handled things poorly on all sides. My siblings and I get a long great and have similar parenting philosophies, but still, we get on each others’ nerves at family gatherings often, especially in kid-related ways. So we try and be as understanding and forgiving as we can and realize that even if I wouldn’t have handled something a certain way, if everyone is ok at the end of the day, well kids need to learn to interact with other adults anyway, sometimes pretty darn crappy adults! At least you are there to moderate and model how you handle someone who is trying to put all their emotions on you!

  60. My standard with my 3yo son below, but if that’s tl;dr, a real tight feedback loop for kids learning about bodies and consent is to have them ask if they can pet a dog. If you ask and let the owner answer, have the dog sit, and inform you of any potential licking, you get a nice reward of petting a good soft dog. If you don’t follow those steps, the dog will act surprised (or just lick your face, which my son also hates, or just run around and not stop for pats). Obviously I don’t have my kids run up to rando dogs yelling at them about petting, but safe happy dogs are great communication partners and kids pick up on their body language really easily.

    Scripts about hugs:

    if someone wants to hug him and he doesn’t seem enthusiastic: Kid, do you want to hug Person?
    Kid, squirming: Nooooooooooooooo
    Me: Kid doesn’t want to hug you right now.

    This works 95% of the time. The other 5%, I just keep repeating that Kid doesn’t want to hug right now in my upbeat “cool, you’re a child and I’m a grownup so I can say this over and over for you but we are going to do what I say” voice. This works with everyone except my MIL, with whom I sometimes have to break out the I DON’T THINK HE LIKES THAT.

    Of course, you also have to monitor the reverse. My son LOVES to hold hands with his friends and walk together, which I always check in about even thought it’s ADORABLE and i want it to happen with all my heart.

    Kid: Let’s hold hands with Friend!!
    Me: Okay make sure you ask Friend if they want to hold hands first!
    Kid: Once you get your coat on, do you want to hold hands??? [usually skips to this step on his own now, but it took a while]
    If yes, we get enthusiasm, if no, friend usually just wiggles or grabs their parent or makes a weird noise.
    Me if no: I don’t think Friend wants to hold hands right now.
    Son: Let’s see if other Friend is here and wants to hold hands.
    Me: Other Friend is gone tho let’s go to the car for real

  61. My standard with my 3yo son below, but if that’s tl;dr, a real tight feedback loop for kids learning about bodies and consent is to have them ask if they can pet a dog. If you ask and let the owner answer, have the dog sit, and inform you of any potential licking, you get a nice reward of petting a good soft dog. If you don’t follow those steps, the dog will act surprised (or just lick your face, which my son also hates, or just run around and not stop for pats). Obviously I don’t have my kids run up to rando dogs yelling at them about petting, but safe happy dogs are great communication partners and kids pick up on their body language really easily.

    Scripts about hugs:

    if someone wants to hug him and he doesn’t seem enthusiastic: Kid, do you want to hug Person?
    Kid, squirming: Nooooooooooooooo
    Me: Kid doesn’t want to hug you right now.

    This works 95% of the time. The other 5%, I just keep repeating that Kid doesn’t want to hug right now in my upbeat “cool, you’re a child and I’m a grownup so I can say this over and over for you but we are going to do what I say” voice. This works with everyone except my MIL, with whom I sometimes have to break out the I DON’T THINK HE LIKES THAT.

    Of course, you also have to monitor the reverse. My son LOVES to hold hands with his friends and walk together, which I always check in about even thought it’s ADORABLE and i want it to happen with all my heart.

    Kid: Let’s hold hands with Friend!!
    Me: Okay make sure you ask Friend if they want to hold hands first!
    Kid: Once you get your coat on, do you want to hold hands??? [usually skips to this step on his own now, but it took a while]
    If yes, we get enthusiasm, if no, friend usually just wiggles or grabs their parent or makes a weird noise.
    Me if no: I don’t think Friend wants to hold hands right now.
    Son: Let’s see if other Friend is here and wants to hold hands.
    Me: Other Friend is gone tho let’s go to the car for real

  62. Not a parent, or a teacher, but the child of a mentally ill person, who desperately could have used some contact with adult women with appropriate emotional control, so I think I might have another perspective to add. (I’m also a super dedicated aunt and kid person).

    You have no obligation to keep spending time with Juno, but if you want to nurture the friendship between Anna and Elsa, you could model appropriate boundaries for both girls. Elsa’s benchmark for appropriateness is pretty much fucked because of her mother’s instability and emotional outbursts. She’s learning from her mother than acting out feelings gets you attention, which is going to really damage her socially.

  63. I’ve taught lots of little folks who are Juno’ s kids, and while I *would* let them play with my kids; I wouldn’t let Juno supervise interactions. No, No, No. I’ve had parent conferences with Juno. So nope.

    Juno-children have plenty of chances to learn from not-Juno. We teach them at school to accept people’s right to say ‘no’. They learn that they are expected to manage their own feelings from other nonJuno parents at sleepovers. They learn through consequences when they lose friends or their manipulations are ignored.

    Juno’s kids are actually keen to learn. They learned from Juno didn’t they? They only turn into Juno if they land in an entire circle of dysfunction; and there’s unfortunately still too many victim-shushing cultures in schools and friend groups.

    But if you let them play around reasonable grown ups, it’ll be fine (Perhaps THEIR DADS, THEIR DADS WHO LIKE EACH OTHER, lol). Or simply physically removing Anna from manipulation attempts is a teachable moment. Anna models ‘I am dealing’ behaviour in that moment as well as being protected.

    When kids aren’t getting along, you gotta split them up. Ten to one the attention seeker will do whatever necessary to get the reunion back on; make it clear that playing nice and cooling your heels makes the reunion happen.

    Also, frequently check in with Anna ‘did you have FUN with Elsa?’ When you ask kids if they still like another kid or want to see them they sometimes feel obliged to say yes.

  64. Hey! Mother to a toddler here. All the advice here is really superb, and I wanted to add one thing: many years ago, before I had my kiddo, someone (my mom?) said something to the effect of “the parents of your child’s friends are not necessarily your friends; they’re more like work colleagues.”

    And this analogy has been GREAT for me in terms of accepting that other families have different ways of doing things (even ways that I, personally, hate), and that our way of doing things is totally valid, AND that things don’t need to be copacetic at all times between every party. There are parents that I adore and would go on vacation with; there are parents who meet the bare minimum of personality but my child loves their child, so we make it work. And in all situations, my greatest allegiance is to my child and his needs; my parent-colleague is an adult who can handle her own path; her child is her responsibility.

    A working relationship just needs to work – you don’t need to be besties – and if you sense that Juno and her kiddo are too much work, or the wrong kind of work, then yes, talk to your daughter about taking a little break from Elsa. You can even just take a “we’ll see you when we see you” approach for a while. And if you reframe your relationship with Juno as one with a work colleague who isn’t particularly competent, it becomes much easier to take the lead, set boundaries, and push back. (How do I know? Because I have done this! It’s such a great mind trick.)

  65. Parent here, and LW, in addition to all the fabulous advice here about managing your daughter and Elsa – please please please don’t fall into the trap of Parenting All The Adults.

    I mean, here you are not only trying to manage a couple of four year olds (who are barely past learning that other people have feelings two), but managing 1) Juno’s feelings 2) the friend network’s cohesion 3) the husbands being pals with each other. None of these are things that should on you to keep shiny-happy, *particularly* when that comes at the expense of you and/or your daughter. Little kids can learn that if you don’t play nicely with other kids, those kids don’t want to play with you. Juno can learn this too.

    BTW, Juno sounds exhausting and spending minimal time with her is probably the way to go, but otherwise, a couple of suggestions that work on children and might work with at least managing her existence:

    – The “nevertheless/be that as it may” technique. You dismiss the excuse (“I was upset!”) as the derail that it is, and go right back to your actual point that she’s dodging: “Nevertheless, how you chose to express that was not cool.” “Be that as it may, leaving the house with someone else’s keys meant Bob couldn’t get home and it wasn’t okay.”

    – Treating her like another four-year-old: I don’t want to play with you anymore, grown-up version. “Juno, what I hear you saying is that either you can’t control your behavior when you’re upset, or you think it’s OK to act however you like when you’re upset. That makes me upset, too, and I can’t really spend time around you if you can’t or choose not to control your behavior.”

  66. I’ve found it useful to teach my kids (3 and 5) and my daycare kids (2 and 4) that they can, at any time, ask for alone time. Alone time is 100% respected and enforced (provided we aren’t in the middle of something that overrides it for safety reasons). The kid who wants alone time will be given a defined space where the other kids can’t go for that time, and the other kids can’t try to talk (or yell) at the kid having alone time.

    This has been useful for my 5yo in recognizing that he’s getting overly rowdy and needs space to calm down, it’s been useful for the 4yo who gets overstimulated by noise. The 3yo is starting to use it, mostly for personal power and decision making reasons, and I expect the 2 yo will start with it soon as well.

    It’s easier to enforce in my own home, but I let my kids know that alone time exists anywhere, and they can take some time to themselves even if we’re visiting someone else or we’re in a public space. The form it takes might be different (they can’t expect to have their friends’ room to themself) but we will make it work if they need it.

    It might be helpful for your kid if you let her know that she can, at any time and for any reason, check out of interacting with her friends and you’ll support her in it. Maybe having the option to check out before it becomes a crying situation will help. I know sometimes my kids can recognize a situation going south before it gets really bad, but they don’t necessarily have the social power or know their options to exist the situation earlier.

  67. Hi LW
    I am a mom of a 13 year old, and I worked as a nanny and in preschool and elementary school classrooms. I am not a kid expert, but I have dealt with a couple of situations a bit like yours.

    Mom #1 and her son were in my daughter’s playgroup when she was 3. The boy would bite and hit other kids, and the mom would immediately put him in her lap for a cuddle and a song. At no time did she tell him that biting and hitting are not ok. She expected the kids he hurt to give him cuddles so that he would not be sad anymore. Her behavior was bizarre and infuriating. We asked the mom to avoid playgroup until her son stopped biting and hitting other kids. She was friends with the moms club leaders, so we couldn’t kick her out officially.
    About 2 weeks after we asked her to leave, this mom showed up at playgroup again. We were at the library because it was raining buckets outside. I didn’t know she was there until she and her son sat down right next to my daughter at the book table. I immediately pulled my daughter on to my lap and started packing our stuff to leave. The boy leaned over and bit my daughter’s arm really hard. His mom did her usual cuddle and song routine, and then held her son toward us for his hug. My daughter said, “No! No hug for you!” The mom was shocked, and complained that my daughter wasn’t being nice. I told her that my daughter was plenty nice, she just didn’t want to be bitten again and I couldn’t blame her! I said that her son chose to bite, and if he was sad about that then he should stop biting people. I told her to stay away from my daughter, and I left that playgroup for quite awhile, until the boy stopped hurting others. Mom #1 acted like nothing ever happened, and was just as friendly as ever. It was pretty strange.

    Mom #2 was also in this playgroup (ask me why I quit), when my daughter was 4. This mom had a daughter. Our girls became friends, and we started arranging play dates for the two of them. Things were fine at first. Then, the girl started trying to get my daughter to go off alone with her. Like, let’s go in the playhouse or behind the bushes where the grownups can’t see. They were still only four years old, so I didn’t let them run off alone. Good thing, because I caught the girl poking my daughter with a piece of wire and pinching her. My daughter was crying, and I comforted her while telling Mom #2 what happened. She said, “Oh, that wire? She just likes to play with that. She wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. Your daughter is just crying for attention. She should apologize to (her daughter) for trying to get her in trouble. She is so manipulative, you really need to deal with that.” I told her that my daughter hadn’t done anything wrong, that crying in pain is not manipulative, that we were not going to be seeing her anymore, and that she should keep her daughter away from mine. Later, my daughter told me that this girl had pinched her a bunch of other times when they played together, but she didn’t want to get her friend in trouble by saying anything. Mom #2’s daughter was eventually asked to leave playgroup and a preschool class because of her aggressive behavior toward other children, but Mom #2 never admitted that her child was doing anything wrong.

    LW, your friend sounds like she is trying to make your child responsible for her child’s emotions and behavior. That is not good behavior on her part as a friend or as a parent. Since telling people how to parent their kids is not usually helpful or likely to work, I think your best bet is to just pull away from this friend. Maybe her daughter is being aggressive in small ways that you do not see, or maybe she isn’t. But this mom is manipulating you and your child, and that is definitely wrong. Mom #1 finally figured things out, and her son stopped hurting other kids. She never apologized or acknowledged what happened, but she stopped her own manipulative behavior because other parents stood up to her. Mom #2 thinks I am mean and unreasonable to this day. In both cases, I have never regretted pulling away. My daughter was happier with other friends, and she learned that it is not ok for anyone to hurt and manipulate her. She knows that, if she tells someone to stop touching (hitting, biting) her, I will stand up for and support her. LW, you sound like a great parent. I hope you and your little one find many other kind, reasonable, unmanipulative friends. Jedi hugs!

  68. I’m a former early childhood teacher and current early childhood therapist/consultant and I think the Captain’s advice is great.

    Anna 100% gets to decide if she wants to get a hug/play with dolls/whatever and this is a great age to start working on how to say no kindly and how to start problem solving with peers, with your support. Perhaps she is able to say no and you can offer a solution/compromise (“Anna told you she need some space but you can ask her again for a hug when she’s calmed down” or “Anna doesn’t want a hug now, maybe you could ask her for a high five” or “What if you played x for 10 minutes then switched to y”). With support, this is an age where kids can start to generate their own solutions to problems and conflicts.

    Honestly, I think these scripts are more damage control because you seem to be dealing with a mom who has difficulty with her own affect management and so she’s most likely going to struggle teaching this to her child. I think it’s important to model and enforce giving Anna space when she is upset and possibly even cutting the play date short if you feel like the kids are done. You also might want to look at how often these play dates happen, how long they last and think about cutting them shorter if the length/frequency seems to not be working. Maybe giving Anna some tools to communicate with you if she’s tired or done playing pre-conflict would help prevent some of these issues before the wailing starts.

  69. I nannied a hugger who HAD to get involved with any upset child or crying baby. It was really tough because other adults think it’s cute that she wants a hug or wants to see their baby, so I’m constablty saying to parents: “she’s still learning that not everyone wants hugs! It’s ok if your kid doesn’t want one.” And to my kids: “he just needs his mom right now, let’s give him some space. His mom will fix it.” In a sense it’s less of a minefield when your own kid is the one with problematic behavior, and other parents are often on board if you explain it to them (not all… Very frustrating when some mom tries to lecture your toddler [she needs simple, clear reinforcement! Not a lecture!!!] And tosses sarcasm your way when you intervene. But that was one mom out of many parents.)

    No specific advice, just my experience from the other side.

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