Parent to Parent: When Play Dates Go Wrong

Sometimes, your child has a friend over, and things don’t go well.

That happened at our house recently. For the first hour of the visit, I heard heated voices, and finally, my child reported that the friends just could not get along. We sat for a while, working to come up with something they could both enjoy (besides “baking and frosting cookies,” but nice try), and eventually we did, but it was still an afternoon marked by constant tussles and not much fun.

When I dropped the friend off, my fellow mother came out onto the driveway. “How’d it go?”

I had been thinking about that moment the whole ride over. Should I say something? What? I didn’t want to damage the children’s friendship, which I perceived as slightly battered but certainly not broken. And I didn’t want to damage our friendship, either.

When things go wrong between your child and another on your watch, is it your job to give the other parent the play-by-play? Silence is generally golden in this instance, Andrea Nair, psychotherapist and parenting educator, said. “I don’t talk to the other parent unless it was something I really couldn’t handle, or unless it’s at the point where I”m going to stop inviting the child over.” Even then, she said, if the relationship isn’t close, the best tactic may be just to say, “Our children aren’t really getting along any more.” These are conversations that can too easily go wrong, as parents get defensive.

If you do need to talk to the other parent, Ms. Nair suggests a neutral, problem-solving approach: “Here’s what happened today, here’s how I handled it. Is that O.K. with you?” Or: “Our kids seem to be having trouble together. Can we come up with something to try next time?”

In this case, I decided to put it out there — not because we hadn’t handled it, or even because it had been that bad, but because my friend had asked, on several other occasions, if I would please tell her if there were problems. Because I knew (after several years’ acquaintance) that she meant it. And because I have a child who has more than once been returned from a friend’s house by a fellow parent with a shell-shocked expression — and never asked over again. I’d rather know (and in truth, I already know, but specifics can help), and I suspected my friend felt the same way.

Fortunately, I was right. We had a good laugh over the whole thing, and parted with some good strategies on both sides. But I still had to take a deep breath before plunging into that conversation.

That’s probably a good thing. Sometimes it’s tempting for parents to hash over every incident between friends, and sometimes our motives are not so clear. If what you’re saying isn’t “I really don’t know what to do, and I’d like our children to stay friends,” then it might come across as “do you know what a jerk your child can be?” or worse, “why haven’t you taught your kid better?” And if you’re not really looking for solutions, that might really be what you’re saying. That’s not a conversation that is ever going to end well.

The best practice? Have these conversations only when it would be more difficult, in the long run, if you didn’t have them. When that’s the case, don’t avoid the conversation or the other family. It may be awkward at first, Ms. Nair said, “but you’ll probably recover.” If we try to keep a spirit of collaboration alive, we dramatically increase the odds that both friendships will survive as well.

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