What to Do When Your Child Won't Play Well With Others

By: Tricia Cornell

When they were little, my kids used to sit in a circle during preschool playgroups and sing, “Hello, friends. Doo-oh, doo-oh. Hello, friends. Doo-oh, doo-oh.” And then they’d clap, or snap, or stomp, or whatever. Maybe you’ve got that song stuck in your head now, like I do. You’re welcome.

When kids are tiny, that’s the default term for other kids: “friends.” What did you and your friends do today? Be nice to your friend.(Meaning, of course, "that other toddler you just met at the playground.”) Then, at some point, most kids figure out, Hey. These kids aren’t all my friends. Some of them are my friends. And some of them are just kids in my class. And that kid over there? I’m not sure I like him at all.

I think we do kids a disservice when we tell them (even implicitly) that they have to be “friends” with everybody. It’s not really what we mean. Friendship is a strong, personal bond. We don’t feel it with everyone around us, and that’s okay.

What we mean, and what I think we should be telling kids directly is, “You don’t have to be friends with everyone in your class or your neighborhood. You don’t even have to like them. But you do have to treat them with respect and compassion.”

And when they can’t muster that respect and compassion (because, let's face it, some kids — okay, a lot of kids, maybe even my kids, maybe yours — can act with breathtaking cruelty, leave it to these sweet little beings to really go for the jugular. I mean that figuratively, but sometimes it happens even literally.

It’s hard for most parents to imagine their kid in the role of the "hurter", rather than the victim, and that leaves us unsure of what to do when it happens. Here are some things to think about when you realize that your kid has become the terror of his playgroup or classroom “friends.”

You don’t have to like everybody, but you do have to treat everyone well. This is a tough distinction for kids — even adults — to make. Sometimes, when we tell kids to “be nice,” they think we’re telling them how to feel. They push back: “But I don’t like Jordan! Why should I be nice to Jordan?” Help your child separate feelings from behavior. They don’t have to control or change their feelings, but they do have to control their actions.

Focus on behavior. When you validate your kid’s feelings (hey, maybe Jordan really isn’t all that likable), you can focus on their actions. Be specific. “Be nice” is a slippery injunction. “I heard you say that Jordan looks funny. That’s hurtful and that’s not okay.”

Don’t label. Kids live up or down to our expectations. Once a child has built a perception of herself as someone who acts out and hurts other people, guess what she’s going to keep doing? That’s right. When we say, “You’re being a bully,” “You’re being a brat,” or “You’re being mean,” we’re using words that label the child when we should instead focus on the behavior.

Build real connections and strengths. Does your child have other strong friendships? Does your child feel like he or she excels at something? Does he or she have a spark? Does he or she have strong connections to adults in their lives? When kids feel insecure and unsupported, they may act out against others.

“I need a break.” These words may sound funny coming out of the mouth of a 5-year-old (or a 12-year-old, or a 35-year-old), but they are very powerful. When kids are frustrated and feeling like they want to lash out at others around them, this simple sentence can be a way for them to back out of the situation and signal to the adults around them that they need a little time alone. In fact, try it yourself the next time you feel like shouting at someone.

Teach kids to say "I'm sorry." Has this ever happened at your house or in your classroom: “Hey! Say sorry!” And then the kid mumbles, “Sorry,” and that’s that? I know I’m guilty. Making a sincere, heartfelt apology—one that comes from recognizing that you have hurt someone else—is hard. But it’s an important skill. Instead of focusing on the reflexive “sorry,” calmly ask your child how his actions may have made the other person feel. Ask him what he might do about that. Kids also need to learn that “sorry” doesn’t erase what they did.

Still at your wit's end? Consider getting professional help. While no kids are truly angelic, sometimes chronic bad behavior toward others stems from difficulty reading social cues. If you feel like your child has trouble understanding that their actions can hurt other kids, approach your school or another professional and discuss getting an evaluation.

[Related: Anti-Bullying Action Steps for Parents]