Dr. Adams Answers: How do I respond when my 3-year old reports a peer is being unkind to her?

Q:  I’m hoping you can give me a little advice on our first little social road bump.

My daughter goes to a preschool with 8 kids in the class. She is the youngest by quite a bit. Everyone except for one other girl will be four by the end of October. She can totally hang academically, and her teacher says she’s pretty close socially, but to me, she seems less mature.

So, in the last two weeks, when I ask my daughter what she did/who she played with at school, she will mention some not so nice actions of a friend of hers—nothing crazy, typical three year old stuff. She always tells me these things in a nonchalant way and doesn’t seem upset. She’s said that the girl has said things like, “if you play with her I’ll push you over” or my daughter will say that she likes to play magnets with her, but the little girl won’t give her any of the magnets. Tonight she told me that the girl wont play with her “because she doesn’t like me”. I tried to ask her why she thinks that but couldn’t get an answer, and I didn’t want to put words in her mouth. I’ve tried to keep my responses nonchalant since so far she hasn’t seemed upset. I don’t want to give her reason to be upset if she’s coping well. I’ve just said things like “well that’s not very nice. You can tell her that you don’t like that and then find someone else to play with.”

I also feel like when kids do this, it’s a power thing. So if she starts showing she’s upset by the girl, it gives the girl power and might make it worse. But I don’t know. What do you think? Do I let it go and assume like all things with three year olds it will resolve itself? Just keep giving her scripting? Have some one on one play time with the little girl outside of school?

A: It is difficult to hear about kids being unkind to one another, and especially hard to hear about someone being unkind to our own child (that Mama-bear instinct is REAL).  

You are totally right, however, that it sounds like pretty normal, toddler-like social aggression.  These situations are always tricky because 1). it is hard to know exactly what is happening since we are not there and 2). what I would suggest depends on the frequency and severity of what is happening, and what it looks like in context (do they ever play nicely together?  Does she sometimes say nice things too?).

I think the AMAZING news here is that your daughter is coming to you and telling you about it!  That is indicative of wonderful regulation, and is quite socially developed for her age.  While she may not totally understand what is happening, she is bringing this to you as a way of processing, and because she trusts you can help. It is also positive that she doesn't seem very upset - what excellent resilience!  She isn't refusing to go to school, and it doesn't seem to be dominating the content of her day, so that is also good news.

I think most of what your gut is telling you is right - you don't want to make a bigger deal than necessary, but there are also some things you can do to help her navigate these moments:

  1. I agree, don't blow it too far out of proportion (which, you aren't).  Try to avoid asking leading questions (e.g., "Was anyone mean to you today?").  Instead, start with "Did you and (friend) have any fun together today?" - you might get a sense if there is more balance.  If she brings up a hard moment, then absolutely discuss it with her, but find other things to discuss about her day as well.
  2. If/when she brings up a moment where a child is being unkind - validate the feeling she expresses (or seems like she is feeling, if it's clear): "It seems like that might have made you sad, that would make me feel sad too!" If it is unclear how she felt about it, ask her how that made her feel, and validate from there. I would also make sure to praise her for telling you - "I am so glad that you told me what happened so I can help you."

If she doesn't talk about her own feelings, you can model what your own reaction would be - "That would make me feel really sad if someone said that to me."

Next, help her come up with a plan - "let's think of some things we can do if that happens again." I would limit it to two strategies at a time. Here are a few:

  1. As you suggested, encourage her to tell her friend "I don't like that," and to then find someone else to play with.
  2. Give her a different script to try - "I want to play with you, but when you say that it makes me feel sad.  Please don't say that again (or, please share the magnets)."
  3. Tell her if she feels really sad, or if the peer won't stop using unkind words, she can ask a teacher for help. (They are young, and this is age-appropriate).

From here, check-in with her, gently.  If you ask about it directly (which is fine), just balance it with other questions.  If she brings it up, focus on the positive of her telling you, how she felt, strategies she tried or didn't, and what she could do next.  Role-playing the situation might even help her use one of the strategies in the moment.

If your daughter is open to it, the idea of having them play together outside of school is a great suggestion.  It might give you some insight, and it might make things better at school.

If your daughter seems to be getting more upset about it, or the strategies aren't working, (or you have other concerns about the social environment), it is appropriate to talk to the teacher.  

There are some wonderful books for young children that explore social aggression.  Here are some suggestions:  Chrysanthemum, The Recess Queen, and Llama llama and the Bully Goat.

One thing I try to remind myself in situations like this: while it is tempting to remove the environmental circumstances that are causing the distress (or making something hard), hard situations are unavoidable, and can be an important opportunity for growth for our children. Empowering our kids with these skills and strategies (and safe place to discuss and develop them!) is SO important.  And while they feel (too) young to be dealing with this - it is normal, and there is a gentle and age-appropriate way to help them develop skills they will continue to needs for a long time.

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