Help! We can't stand our friends' kids!
Dear Jenny Hale,
We are a family of five. Mum, dad and three kids, aged nine, seven and four. We are a pretty ‘regular’ family. Other than typical kid stuff, our children are pretty good. I'd go as far as saying that I'm proud of my kids’ behaviour most of the time. Our problem is tricky. Our very good friends have kids a little younger than ours, two boys and a girl aged eight, six and three. In the last six months, whenever we spend time with them, their six-year- old son taunts and teases our nine year old, resulting in uncharacteristic retaliations from our son. Their six year old seems to revel in the attention he receives and treats it like a game. I have told my son to come straight to the adults when this happens, but he says that it makes him so wild he just wants to hurt the boy. So far he has not retaliated physically – he just screams at him.
Our friends’ response is to let the kids work it out. They feel that boys will be boys. We are non- confrontational people, so it is awkward for us to challenge our friends’ style of parenting. We are not sure if our friendship can weather this difference.
Some of Jenny's tips
This is a tricky one and definitely a situation that quite a few parents find themselves in – the desire to keep a friendship but the challenge of different values and parenting styles. As hard as it may sound, I do think you and your friends deserve an opportunity to talk through this issue. It doesn’t have to be confrontational. I would start by expressing the fact that as the children have gotten older, a few challenges have snuck in. Let them know you are keen to have the children enjoy their time together as much as the adults do.
You can refer to something new you are doing in the family as a way to start the conversation. You could say, “We have heard how successful it is to have a few clear family rules as part of our values. We have sat down as a family and worked out what ours are so we’d like our relatives and friends to know about them.”
Many families parent from crisis to crisis and welcome the opportunity to have some firm guidelines to base their values on.
Your rules can be brief and simple.
1. Speak kindly
2. Take turns
3. Give each other space
4. Ask permission to use stuff that is not your own
Years ago, I occasionally had conversations with my children’s friends. I remember talking to a six-year-old boy about how I expected him to behave when his mother picked him up. He used to morph into something unpleasant as soon as his mum arrived and up until then, he had behaved beautifully. I let him know what was expected – “James, we enjoy having you here to play, and you are a good friend of Ryan’s. One thing you need to remember is that when your lovely mother comes to pick you up, you say hello to her and when she says it is time to pack up you say, ‘Okay Mum’.” And the next time was fine. He needed to know I knew and how I expected him to behave.
One other important factor to remember when children are playing is that we should not leave them on their own for too long. Children will often wind down into unpleasant play if they are left for too long. It may mean checking on them occasionally and making a brief comment like, “Hi guys, sounds like this game can last for just five more minutes and then it is time to do something else or have morning tea.”
Your son is struggling and it must be difficult to see him so upset by the taunting. He needs a solid plan for what to do when he or his siblings are teased. A few scripts can empower a child who feels powerless and angry. Such as, “No, thanks. I’m going to play in the lounge for a bit” or, “Play kindly or I am playing somewhere else.”
Lastly, your son may need some help unpacking his big feelings of anger, hurt and frustration. At a suitable time, talk to him about his anger and help him work out what is pressing his buttons. Maybe he feels powerless, or humiliated, or he could be feeling the unfairness of being treated like that. Having your listening ear will go a long way towards helping him feel validated and okay.
The ‘regular’ family reported back that although the conversation with their friends had been awkward, it felt like the right and fair thing to do. Their friends were surprised but not offended, and showed genuine interest in setting up family rules. They admitted that rules were something they had avoided, but saw how it was possible to make them a real family occasion with ‘buy in’ from the children. The big surprise was when the same family offered to trial leaving early if they felt the behavior warranted it. They knew they had relied on lots of warnings and not much follow-through, which meant the kids had gotten used to ignoring their parents.
Both couples felt that they often got engrossed in their own conversations and were a bit oblivious to what the children were up to. Changing this would take a bit of energy, but the plan was to visit the children from time to time to check on things. This was put into effect immediately and the children’s cooperative behavior reflected that they liked a more ‘hands on’ approach. Their son’s anger was going to take time to work through, but just giving him some time to talk about it was helpful. They realised that the anger was coming from him being anxious about losing a game, so it gave them a great place to start.
Many families parent from crisis to crisis
and welcome the opportunity to have some firm guidelines to
base their values on.