“Katie, let’s play house. I’m the mommy; you’re the baby.” “No, I’m the mommy, or I won’t be your friend.”
“Then I’m not playing with you.”
This exchange is typical of what preschoolers say when they argue. They may play well together and then suddenly tell each other, “I’m not your friend.” Young children, whose emotions are close to the surface, concentrate on their immediate wishes and needs. And because they’re egocentric, they don’t consider each other’s feelings, but let their anger come out in harsh words or actions. Some children give in when spoken to in this way, while others fight back or persist until they get their way, or try to find an adult to help.
You may wonder what to do when you see this kind of behavior. You should begin by setting limits on your child, who is egocentric and needs your guidance; on her own, she doesn’t think about others when she’s mad. However, if you restrict her expressions of anger too much, she may end up believing that anger is bad and inappropriate.
Your child needs a chance to let her anger out, and even if you don’t like to hear her say, “I’m not playing with you,” or “You’re not my friend anymore,” you should realize that young children are not very good at expressing their exact thoughts. Harsh words are sometimes a young child’s way of letting her strongest negative feelings be known. One five-year-old told her aunt, “You say ‘nanny nanny boo boo’ when someone takes your toy, and you get it back.” She insisted, “You have to say that!”
When it seems appropriate, you can let arguing children try to work out their differences themselves, as long as no one is getting physically injured or having his or her feelings terribly hurt. Children are sometimes surprisingly good at settling their arguments and can gradually learn to work problems out with one another. A child who seldom has a chance to settle her own arguments may become dependent on her parents for help even with minor difficulties.
Parents should also step in and give suggestions and guidance. “Why don’t you both pretend you’re mommies and let your dolls be the babies?” If one child shouts something mean to another, parents should avoid saying, “That’s not nice!” and instead say, “You’re really mad because Tanya doesn’t want you to play. Why don’t you tell her that?” Even if angry children ignore parents’ suggestions, the very presence of adults will have a restraining effect. Children tend to be less aggressive with each other when parents are nearby.
Young children also respond well when parents are clear. “You have to include her in your play.” “He doesn’t want you to yell at him, so you’ll have to stop.” “Tell her nicely what you want to do.” “I know you’re angry, but I won’t let you be mean to her.” And they benefit from their parent’s support: “Let’s go ask Sam if you can build the tower with him.”
You can lessen your child’s involvement in arguments by avoiding situations that usually lead to problems. For instance, your child may play well with one child at a time, but not when a third joins in. Three can be a difficult number, two friends sometimes pair up and exclude the third. If you can’t avoid this situation, give all the children frequent reminders about getting along and including each other in play.
If your child consistently argues with one particular playmate, limit their time together or tell them, “You have to find a way to get along with each other.” Allow your child’s emotions to be heard, but when necessary, help her control her anger by changing the situation or setting firm limits.