There are good play dates, so-so play dates, and then there are meltdown, can’t-get-out-of-there-soon-enough play dates.
Preschoolers may do battle over a toy, engage in name-calling, refuse to acknowledge one another, or even push, bite, or hit their playmate. Older kids may tease, taunt, or torment each other and/or get into trouble -- or even into dangerous situations.
Of course, your child's health, safety, and well-being -- physical and emotional -- come first. As a parent, it's your responsibility to look out for that.
"You have to protect your kid and you don’t want to put your kid in a situation where he or she is uncomfortable,” says child psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman, MD. “If your kid doesn’t want to play with another child, you have to take that very seriously,” says Hoffman, who co-directs the New York Psychoanalytic Society's Pacella Parent Child Center.
But how do you know if you're reading the situation correctly? When should you express your concerns to the other child's parent? And how can you do it diplomatically?
Here's expert advice.
When the Child Is Young
If your child is young enough that you are in charge of his or her social calendar, you can always stop making play dates. But if you value the relationship with the parent, this can strain, if not ruin, that relationship too, Hoffman says.
“If your friend pushes you about getting together, you can ... say something like, ‘Your son is really rough and aggressive, and he scares my son,'" says Elizabeth J. Short, PhD, a psychology professor and the associate director of the Schubert Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
You can also take steps to control the play environment.
"Make sure you are present to monitor the play dates so that all kids stay safe,” Short says. For example, she suggests that you host the play date if you're uncomfortable with other options.
“If you think your kid is at risk, then I would not take a second chance,” Short says. “Always be open-minded, but when you feel it might jeopardize your child’s safety, go with your instinct because instincts don’t lie."
When It's an Older Child
If your older child has a friend who you think is a bad influence, limit how much time they can spend with this person, says Nancy Darling, PhD, a psychology professor at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. “Set it up so it’s difficult to spend time with them," Darling says.
Don't judge older kids by their behavior when they were much younger. Just because someone was a bully or a biter when they were 5 doesn’t make them a bad teen.
“Kids can change and we have long memories as parents,” Short says.
One bad play date does not a bad kid or doomed friendship make. We all have off days, and you should not consider yourself an expert on any child based on one afternoon.
However, if you notice consistent issues over a period of time, then that may be a pattern that deserves more consideration.
Expressing your concerns about someone else's child is not easy and should not be done lightly.
“This may actually be harder than telling someone something about their husband or wife,” Hoffman says. “It’s a very tough situation.”
His advice: Wait for an opening.
“If the other person says, ‘I don’t know what to do with Johnny,’ it may be a good time to delicately express your concerns,” Hoffman says.
But be warned: Saying something, even when prompted, may affect your friendship. And be careful that you state the facts and share your feelings, rather than diagnose or label someone else's child.