My preschool daughter’s friend is mean

Q: We have a daughter full-time in a creche since she was 14 months old. She will soon be four and she has always been happy there up to the past couple of months. Her “Best Friend” moved up to the Montessori room with her last summer. Coming up to Christmas, there was a period of physical carry-on where my daughter was on the receiving end of occasional slaps and kicks, being hit with toys, etc from Best Friend.

At all times the creche stepped in immediately and dealt with it and it phased out fairly quickly. We had lots of conversations about telling the teacher, “friends don’t hurt friends” and trying to encourage her to play with other children – because at three, she was upset by the result of the slap, but attributed no blame to the other child so they were still best friends. A marvellous innocence.

The behaviour reappeared recently but it is now psychological rather than physical: my daughter is told by the other girl that she’s not allowed to join in whatever game’s being played. Again, the creche is doing its utmost and the other child’s parents are aware of their daughter’s behaviour and I’m sure are doing their best to address it. My question is, how do I support my own daughter best in this? She has a pretty sensitive nature but how do you explain to a pre-schooler not to take this kind of stuff to heart?

At bedtime, she has been mentioning it, so it’s clearly worrying her, and the aforementioned marvellous innocence is being challenged. Even this morning she was wary of going into the classroom – which is the first time we’ve seen that. So on one side, she sees this girl as her best friend (and is mad to show her any new toys or scraped knees, and is keen to impress her) but, on the flipside, she is very conscious that the other child won’t let her join in games or won’t be her friend. I suppose, worst case, I’m worried that my daughter will begin to view this type of dynamic in a relationship as normal – a kind of prelude to classic female bullying.

A: When children run into problems with other children or have friendship disputes, it can be hard to know what to do as a parent. Whereas in many situations you can be there to sort things out, in these situations you have to rely on them to sort it out themselves with the support of people such as teachers and childcare staff.

As they are on the ground during the day, the primary responsibility for managing such a friendship dispute lies with the staff at the creche, though of course they should consult with you and share plans so you can support your daughter at home.

Simple consistent approaches such as setting rules about being friendly and kind, encouraging your daughter to make other friends (eg by changing the seating arrangements temporarily) or taking time to teach friendship skills to the whole group, can all make a difference.

They can also take time to carefully monitor your daughter’s interaction with the other girl, guiding them in how to play together, supporting your daughter in being assertive or “getting in early” to redirect any problem behaviour – “now we are all going to play together”. In particular, reinforcing any good friendship behaviour is very important – “great to see the two of you sharing and being so kind”.

As well as working closely with the creche staff, it is also important to respond positively when your daughter talks at home about what is happening at creche. The key is to listen to her and to help her talk about what is happening, as well as being reassuring.

Be aware of your own feelings about the situation: it is easy as a parent to let your worries escalate when hearing your child describe a problem. For example, it is easy to consider a few incidents of difficulty with other children as a prelude to long-term relationship problems.

While, of course, as parents you have to take these concerns seriously and to make sure you are doing all you can to help your children, you have to be careful not to let your anxiety take over. If you come across as anxious, this can make your child anxious and can turn a small problem into a bigger deal and more difficult to resolve. Therefore, it is important to ground your own fears, and to deal with the situation on an incident by incident basis.

If your daughter says the other girl does not let her join in, you can first listen to how she is feeling and then explore how the other girl might be feeling also. Remember, it is important to talk about the other girl positively.

For example, rather than saying she is mean, explain to your daughter that she has simply forgotten to be friendly and discuss how your daughter might respond by reacting assertively, playing with another child or by telling a staff member.

Going over the words she might use to the other girl can be helpful, eg “That’s not friendly, I can play the game too” or “I’ll play with you when you are friendly”, etc. The key is that you are upbeat and positive and that you express a belief in your daughter that she will be able to manage the situation.

There are lots of other things you can do to help your daughter, such as encouraging her to play with other children who respond better to her (eg by arranging new play dates, etc). If you think it appropriate, you could even invite the girl she is having a problem with on a play date to give you a chance to monitor and support their relationship.

Finally, do remember that your daughter and the other girl are very young and that with a little bit of support at home and in her creche, the current situation is likely to resolve itself without any long-term problems.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, May 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.