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.
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!
(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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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):
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.