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Your Friendly Neighborhood Playgroup Bully

Jun18

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Hi there Amy – I know that everyone starts their email out with telling you how they followed your awesome pregnancy calendar, and even though I found your main website years before I started bearing children, I must admit I haven’t seen it. So maybe it’s awesome? Who knows! But I will tell you that I have a favorite among your children. I’m not gonna tell you which one though because I wouldn’t want it to you know, sway you, and stuff.

Anyway, I have a pushing/hitting/purposeful bad behavior issue. I have a 22-month old son and my girlfriend has a boy that’s 29 months. They are very alpha-malish and even though they are really just fine with each other there has always been some kind of rough and tumble the last six months. I have even joked in the past that we should just give them foam pool noodles and let them sort it out. However, it’s really gone to the next level in the last three months and came to a head today when her son pushed my son into the sharp edge of the wall. I saw it coming as they were chasing each other and I thought I’d mitigated it with “Careful boys!” and “Play nice!” but just as they ran past me, my friend’s son reached out and pushed and mine went down and came up with a nice goose egg and some residual bloodied scratches.

Our cumulative playgroup has also seen a lot of the same actions from this kid. Flat out push downs, slaps, kicks, pushing off slides, hard clobberings to the face with heavy toys that have sharps edges. I know a lot of this is par for the course. My son does these same things so I’m trying to be understanding. But where my kid and the other kids might do these things 1-3 times each in the 2 hours we’re at playgroup, my friends’ son will do this 12-15 times and it’s not getting better; it’s quite obviously getting worse. I’m trying to give this kid the benefit of the doubt because hey he’s only 2.5 years old and nature and survival of the fittest, but it’s getting to the point that my outgoing kid is actually afraid of him. My girlfriend reprimands his behavior with “We don’t do that because it hurts our friends and it’s not nice.” He gets strapped in a high chair for timeout and after the dozenth time, she threatens him with leaving playgroup and then does follow through. She said she talks to him before playgroup about not hurting friends and that after playgroup when her husband comes home, her son tells his dad that he hit Jimmy, he pushed Carson, and he kicked Sam in the face.

My friend and I used to get together 1-2 times weekly in addition to playgroup but that’s gone away because of how stressful it is to get our kids together. I don’t want to stop going to playgroup as well because all of us (7 mamas total) only have each other. No one even has a grandparent locally to help out so we’re all doing it alone with our husbands. But I think it sends a bad message to my child to keep bringing him into the company of someone who physically causes him pain multiple times in the course of a visit. I was okay with it being “kids being kids” until I noticed my kid shrinking away or immediately putting his hands up defensively to protect himself. And it really bites me in the arse that he can bruise up my kid and the worst he gets is being strapped in a chair. I don’t know what the solution is but he’s obviously continued to do this because his consequence is rather inconsequential to him.

So what to do?

Sincerely with thanks for your future impending advice-
One Ticked Off Mama

Add this to the huge pile of reasons I never joined a playgroup. Or, well, okay, I mostly never joined a playgroup because I am lazy, but I did always preemptively stress-out about the social/clique-ish aspect of it, and what I would do if I didn’t like one of the moms or didn’t like the kids or what if the other moms didn’t like ME or MY KID and ganged up together to ostracize me from the community or something. Maybe I’ll just…sign up for Gymboree instead.

So I don’t have any good insight into playgroup politics and conflict resolution, though I HAVE encountered children like the one you’re dealing with. The aggressive, poorly-socialized toddler who takes “rough and tumble” to a new level, who knows what he’s doing is “wrong” but just doesn’t care. And the parent who keeps on going and going with the same discipline techniques that all SOUND well and good — I mean, they’re doing SOMETHING other than blowing smoke rings at the ceiling while the kid attempts to smother his playmate with a dry-cleaning bag, a la Betty Draper — but the discipline techniques are CLEARLY ineffective and the consequences need to be modified, yet the parent just sticks with what isn’t working, and then stares at you in complete bafflement, like, “I’ve tried this one thing! Over and over! IT’S THE DARNEDEST THING.”

Depending on how close you are to this mom — and it at least sounds like you’re fairly close — you could talk directly to her, privately. Approach it like it’s a problem on both sides, and say that you’re concerned about how the aggression between the boys is escalating and aren’t sure what you — the Royal You, You AND Her, together and united and stuff — should be doing to fix the situation, since the timeouts and talks don’t seem to be working. She’s obviously aware it’s a problem, but hasn’t yet admitted to herself that’s it’s becoming MORE of a problem, and that maybe she should consult some books or the Internet and get some new ideas beyond what’s she’s doing.  Sure, talks and timeouts and lots and lots of “hands are not for hitting, toys are not for throwing” work for some kids. But it’s not working here, so maybe you could offer up a brainstorming session to move beyond the high chair timeout, framing the conversation to include your son too, and what consequence he’d receive for the same overly rough behavior.

Not that I know what WOULD necessarily work for a kid like that — maybe a three-strike policy and then immediately out the door on the third offense? Zero tolerance and out the door on the first offense? Personally, I always yanked my toddler out at the first instance of deliberate hitting/pushing another child, and it rarely took more than a couple times before the lesson seemed to stick that if you want to stay at the playground, you best play nice with others. But this boy still might not really care, given the blasé reporting to dad that yeah, I kicked a kid in the face today and got in trouble for it. YOU KNOW, THE USUAL. Maybe he’s acting out for attention, maybe he’s watching violent TV, maybe he’s just aggressive.

But ultimately, that’s not your problem to solve. Your priority needs to be your son’s safety. And your description of him flinching and throwing defensive poses breaks my heart. It’s true that you cannot keep taking him to a situation where he feels unsafe — and in this case that’s an entirely justifiable feeling! It sucks, but there it is. This isn’t “boys being boys,” this is a boy being a bully, and then all the adults around your son are still insisting that he’s a friend. (“We don’t hurt our friends,” the mom says. Meanwhile, your son is probably thinking, “Lady, if this is friendship, I’M OUT.”)

If the other mom doesn’t step up and do something, and if the other playgroup members also mostly sit around passively while children are getting deliberately hurt because no one wants to hurt anyone’s feeeeeeeelllllingggssss…I don’t know. I don’t think I could keep going. I TOTALLY get that your needs for the social interaction and group support are super important and this is not an easy decision, but if you’re witnessing an actual personality change in your outgoing child and actual fear while you’re there…yikes. I imagine, if I tried to keep going with the current status quo, I would eventually lose it and cause Much Unpleasantness the next time my child got deliberately pushed and visibly bloodied with a pointed “DUDE. YOUR KID. THIS IS NOT OKAY.” outburst. And then everybody would gasp and drop their monocles into their teacups and murmur about my lack of manners and me, the community, ostracized from it, etc.

(I am picturing your playgroup being held at Downton Abbey. I am not sure why.)

Maybe I would try hosting, because on my own turf I generally feel bolder about policing other people’s kids. (HI KIDS. MY HOUSE. MY RULES. I AM YOUR GOD NOW.) Maybe I’d start with taking a break from the weekly group and focus on seeing the moms/kids individually for playdates, and then try the group again in a few months to see if Bad Seed has grown up a little and gotten better. Maybe I’d suggest the group change venues for the summer and try group outings to the pool, playgrounds, kids’ museums — nice big open places where the boys won’t be so on top of each other. I wouldn’t scheme and trash-talk and attempt to force the other mother out or anything, but I also don’t think I could keep going to a situation over and over again, knowing my kid was likely to be injured. That’s really no different than putting a kid in a high chair timeout over and over again, knowing it won’t likely change anything.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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18 Responses to “Your Friendly Neighborhood Playgroup Bully”

  1. Frances Jun 19 at 2:28 am Reply Reply

    I think I would be even more proactive and talk to the playgroup moms together.  All of them, maybe via group email?  Anyway — if you came up with a policy for what to do with biting/hitting/namecalling and all abide by it, then no one mom is singled out, and the group can carry on.

    Myself, I’d suggest a two-strike rule, because otherwise the kids who maybe aren’t being intentionally aggressive don’t get a chance to correct their behaviour.  Make sure the child hears you, get down to their level and make sure they understand…and then if they do it again, sorry, kid, we’re going home.  

    While you’re at it you can make policies about supervision and cleanup and food and so on.  If it smooths the way, pretend you’re suggesting it in case the group grows to include people you don’t all know so well.  

  2. Caroline Jun 19 at 7:57 am Reply Reply

    Ohhh…. this is so difficult, I squirm on your behalf!! I have a friend whose children are… challenging. And deceitful, and rude, spoiled, psycho little monsters tra-la-la! But she is a good person, dealing with some very tough stuff (the kids being psycho nightmares came way before, so it might have worsened it, but the issue was there to start), so I’ve tried to stay calm… but there was an Incident of really vicious (not physical) behaviour and I thought right then ”no more”. So at the end of the afternoon -there were others there – I waved goodbye to everyone, turned to my husband and said ”those children never come back here again”. And they haven’t. But I digress… in your position, if it were my good friend and she clearly is troubled by the aggression, I’d speak to her privately and directly YES I KNOW…GAAAAHHHK. But Amy’s advice is sound; talk about how ”we” can solve this, how the current strategy doesn’t seem to be working, what ”I’ve tried when little Percival does this is xyz and boy oh boy, it really works!” etcetera. At least she is aware and does seem invested in trying to do something, which is a good thing. Maybe this child is victim to some heavy-handedness at home, maybe it’s TV… ask her about what TV he watches etcetera. Don’t involve the other moms yet, she’ll feel so gossiped-about and humiliated. Just try and be direct next time it happens when you are alone together just say ”Percival is getting to be a little anxious of seeing your boy, I’m worried because we love you and want to work this out to get over this bumpy stage – because that is what it’s likely to be – what can we do?”. She might be upset, but in the interests of the friendship, do it anyway, kindly and non-combatively.

  3. Mary Jun 19 at 2:41 pm Reply Reply

    Great advice. I have a new theory that 2 year olds playing together are like an anger management group trying to teach themselves patience. Nobody learns anything they are supposed to.

    No family around here, and playgroups didn’t work for us either. My daughter wasn’t aggressive, but… I dunno, being in other people’s homes with a bunch of other kids just didn’t bring out the best in her. Around 1-ish we dropped out of playgroups and just started doing things on our own with an occasional get together here and there. Eventually I found a couple moms who, like me, preferred to just go to the park and that worked out super well during the 2’s as the kids mostly played by themselves in the open expanse of a park. Then around 3, problems started – turns out that even though their moms got along super well together, the girls didn’t. So we took a break for a little while and that was fine.

    I’d just try and find a way to sensitively move through this phase by broadening the horizons, especially now during the summer when it’s easier to get out. It’s quite likely that your playgroup setting, or the kid dynamic, is just not bringing out the best in him. But, imagine how crushing that is for her?

    Now that I’ve gone on to have two more kids, I don’t even do formal playgroups anymore. So much more trouble than they are worth.

  4. June Jun 19 at 3:23 pm Reply Reply

    This is why we never did playgroups, the pressure would get to me! I agree with everyone else about being gentle but honest (she’s probably so mortified already and she really does seems like she’s trying). Another thought to consider is that while his mom likes being around other moms that maybe her kid just really doesn’t want to be there? At this age no one is really playing cooperatively, it’s a lot of side by side play and occasionally yanking each other’s toys away. Maybe this little guy just isn’t ready for this type of group setting and is frustrated and knows now that he’ll eventually get to leave if he keeps acting out? Would a one on one playdate work better?

    • June Jun 19 at 3:25 pm Reply Reply

      I forgot! Try speaking to the child yourself next time. This mom seems like she wouldn’t mind since her own discipline is obviously not working and sometimes when someone other than mom/dad says something to my kids they listen better and take it more seriously.

  5. Kat Jun 19 at 6:19 pm Reply Reply

    Playgroups at people’s houses seems like a strange thing to me, especially with 7 kids? That’s a lot of kids in what probably isn’t an overly huge space (and if it is, go ahead and ignore what I’m about to say). I think Amy’s suggestion about changing the venue might be a good option. We have a few friends that we do really informal play dates with, but we usually find a local place to go (it rains a lot in our area, so there are a lot of indoor playgrounds – google them!), children’s museums, science centers and even just playing outside with a coat on. There’s something about confined places, sharp angles and no fresh air that seems to make kids a little more aggressive, at least from what I’ve seen.

  6. Angela Jun 19 at 8:40 pm Reply Reply

    So I’ve actually had to deal with this situation from the other side. My oldest son was a pretty aggressive kid. I tried time outs, lectures, sticker charts, rewards, positive reinforcement, spanking, consequences, etc. Everything I did seemed to work for awhile but would wear off after a couple weeks. It doesn’t help that he is very tall for his age so he towers over other kids and people automatically assume he’s older than he is (and expect him to behave accordingly).

    I can’t say how your friend feels. Perhaps she’s in complete denial and doesn’t see it as a problem, but I imagine she does. And as hard as this is for you it may be even harder for her. After all, where I can totally get why you don’t want to quit your playgroup it IS an option. You do have have an out from this situation available to you. But when the situation IS your child there’s no out. Now I do feel that if your child persists on hurting others then it’s your obligation to remove them from the situation. It may or may not be an effective deterrent, but at least it protects the other kids. That said, I’ve been there where your kid is so out of control that you literally cannot leave the house and complete one goddamn errand without having to cut it short, let alone actually socialize with anyone, and it sucks BIG TIME. Before you do anything it might help to keep a couple things in mind.

    1. I don’t really think it’s helpful or accurate to label a two year old a bully. They might get that their actions are against the rules, but they don’t have a concept of right or wrong nor are they able to fully grasp WHY it’s bad to hurt others.
    2. Keep in mind that while there may be some magic discipline technique that will solve this, it’s very possible that there may not. I think sooner or later every parent realizes that sometimes you can try everything and your kid STILL won’t stop doing XYZ until they’re damn well ready. And there could be underlying problems. Maybe there’s an undetected developmental delay. The child psychologist we saw indicated that this can be an early sign of Aspergers or other problems.

    So how would I handle this situation? I probably would refrain from offering advice unless she asks for it, especially as you haven’t really dealt with an aggressive child yourself. I would be upfront though (in the kindest way possible) that your own kid just can’t hold his own yet with hers and you see him getting frustrated and scared when he’s around. Say that you think it would be best for them to take a break from each other. Ask if she’d be willing to help them separated for awhile and then to try reintroducing them to each other in short, supervised intervals. Yes, it will be incredibly awkward but it will also let her know that there is a problem and that you’re taking it seriously. And if that doesn’t work then yeah, you probably will need to remove your son from the situation, even if it means leaving the play group.

    • Sarah Jun 19 at 9:55 pm Reply Reply

      I don’t have anything to add. I was just glad someone said this:
      “I don’t really think it’s helpful or accurate to label a two year old a bully.” AND “Keep in mind that while there may be some magic discipline technique that will solve this, it’s very possible that there may not. I think sooner or later every parent realizes that sometimes you can try everything and your kid STILL won’t stop doing XYZ until they’re damn well ready.” I have experiences on both ends of the spectrum. I’ve pulled my toddler from situations where I didn’t feel she could expect to be reasonably protected, and I’ve been the kid who, maybe due to asynchronostic development (but certainly not due to poor parenting) made group situations unsafe for others, and eventually just snapped dramatically out of it. Just, let’s all keep in mind that everyone really has the same goal (kids and parents alike) in these kinds of situations: to have their rights and needs as individuals met, to feel safe and supported. And I you (OP) luck! Update!

  7. LBH Jun 19 at 8:52 pm Reply Reply

    OK, in my opinion–a 7 month difference in age (22mths and 29mths) doesn’t seem like much of an age difference, but developmental-wise, at least with the kids I’ve been around (my own two and their cohorts at daycare), those 7 months can make a huuuuge difference in play compatibility. The older kid might be more testing his boundaries (and not finding any) while the younger kids might still be in that sweet phase before they figure out they can go and wallop someone upside the head. 

    Secondly, I read this whole thing through my fingers because..that bully was MY kid when he was that age (minus the weak consequences b/c trust me, we tried a lot of different things). Turns out, he wasn’t so much a bully, but a little guy who had a lot of problems with impulse control as part of a larger thing he has (ADHD). He wasn’t a mean-spirited kid, or a kid who hit because his parents hit him (we didn’t) or who watched violent TV shows, still, he would flail out or hit or kick or push on impulse/first reaction or just in the excitement of running/playing  and no amount of threatening, cajoling, lecturing, reading books on the topic, etc, etc did anything to stop it.  We sort of put our heads down and tried to muddle through til he got a little older and started behavior therapy after his diagnosis. (he’s much better now).

    So, I guess I would just advocate for some open-mindedness among other parents. I hate that my kid was thought of as a “bully.” I don’t blame anyone for thinking that or thinking that I just needed to be stricter or a more effective parent, but sometimes there’s something else going on that you may not know.  And I see the other side:  absolutely, if it’s YOUR kid getting walloped, you do what you gotta do to help your kid feel safe. From the bully mom’s side, I always appreciated honesty and directness from the other parent. If your kid didn’t want to play with my kid any more because my kid was being a little jackhole, I understood, and it helped to hear it first hand, rather than someone just avoiding us without knowing why. 

  8. Amy Renee Jun 19 at 10:21 pm Reply Reply

    In addition to the other good advise you have here, I’m going to add 1 piece – saying “careful” and “play nice” is too vague for most 2 year olds. I’m not a fan of saying “no” all the time, but I would say “no pushing” and “no hitting” is probably necessary. “Hitting hurts, hands to yourself please” is sometimes works as well.
    Two year olds can’t be relied on to judge when horseplay is getting too rough, especially if there is a big size or strength difference, so I would suggest going to a straight “no touching” or “gentle touches only” rule. Perhaps you could phrase it to your friend as “My son is getting over excited and starting to hit at home – my pediatrician suggested a zero tolerance policy on physical touhig/hitting until he gets old enoigh to understand.”

  9. Amy W. Jun 19 at 11:06 pm Reply Reply

    My son was “that kid,” too. We tried everything–advice books, play therapy, you name it. We eventually found our way to a developmental pediatrician and he was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (an autism spectrum disorder).  We were totally blindsided because otherwise, he didn’t exhibit any classically autistic behaviors. With behavioral therapy and enrollment in a private school for kids on the spectrum, he’s come a long way. But impulse control combined with quickness to anger and being easily frustrated are still his main stumbling blocks. He loves us and loves his friends, but in the moment, reason flies out the window. 

    Maybe the kid in question is just being bratty, but maybe there’s something else going on. But please don’t assume his mom doesn’t care or that she’s a poor parent. Her son’s behavior may very well be breaking her heart. 

  10. Diana Jun 20 at 1:01 am Reply Reply

    If the playgroup is not working, is there anyway to offer an occasional mom night out so you can see your friend without the kids?  I remember when my son went through this phase, it’s incredibly socially isolating for the mother….

  11. CeeBee Jun 20 at 4:31 am Reply Reply

    OP here. I just want to address some things first. I don’t think my friend is a bad parent (and I never said that I thought she was). Completely the opposite. She is seriously the supreme mother of moms. I don’t read books or consult the internets; I just call her. Second I don’t think her son is a bully. If he’s still like this in kindergarten, well, then yeah I might think that.

    Also I do want to state that my kid can hold his own with this kid and my kid can also be aggressive, really aggressive. But something interesting happened about three months ago. We were at the docs office and I asked for advice on the aggressive behaviour (we have a younger child and a small pet that he was focusing his anger on) and basically we were told to be consistent with timeouts. Lo and behold, we saw dramatic improvement after two weeks. He’s not perfect but we reigned it in, in my opinion, right at the right time. So right as we’re all “You cannot do that. Time out right now. Every single time.” and my kid is getting better and now knows he can’t hit Timmy, or tackle him or push him, etc. So my kid is acting neutral and then Timmy simultaneously upped his game and is just steam rolling my kid. I also think my friend should have stepped up her “timeout” game a lot sooner and I think her timeouts are terrible. She continues to engage verbally with her kid and then he begs and begs to get down and she lets him. I think he just sees it as him getting his way.

    After the pushing incident, my child became incredibly aggressive to everyone at home for an entire week. It was beyond terrible. i honestly thought that the push into the wall had caused some brain damage because my kid was insanely out of control. We skipped playgroup that week. His aggression went away but I was going to skip playgroup again. Stupidly we went this week because I was feeling isolated from people (we live out in the middle of nowhere) and my friend’s kid started his stuff with my kid, and then my kid was a big PITA for the rest of playgroup. So it sucks to sit it out and I guess I was basically wanting to hear that I could tell my friend how to address her kid’s issue/yell at her kid and also that we could go to playgroup all hunky dory and nicey nicey, but that’s just not going to happen. We’re just going to sit it out for awhile. Sigh.

    • Isabel Kallman
      Isabel Kallman Jun 20 at 10:02 am Reply Reply

      CeeBee, would you consider discussing with your entire playgroup moms the thought of introducing a new rule? Suggesting to them that they explain to the kids that they get to stay and play if there is no hitting.  So instead of a “punishment” for hitting, the kids are being rewarded and allowed to continue at that day’s playgroup with their continued good behavior.  All the kids start off with a clean slate each playdate,  If they are aggressive, then they have to leave but get another chance next time/playdate. If it’s group-wide then no one is being singled out.  Also, I know it can be a PITA to turn around and leave right after you arrive (if your kid hits), but hopefully they’ll get the message that they get to come back and try again next time.

    • Caroline Jun 23 at 5:52 am Reply Reply

      I think it’s a shame that you have to sit it out when her child is the one behaving badly. Sure, he is too little to fully understand what he’s doing, but there are no effective consequences for his behaviour and there need to be. Intensely satisfying moment for me was when a child who… let’s say, had ”issues” (ineffectively controlled) walloped another small child entirely unprovoked… and at the speed of light the smaller child’s older brother (hitter was around 3, child getting hit was about 20 months, older child was nearly 4) belted the hitter so hard he fell over. Cue wailing and screeching… and the 2 mothers who witnessed it (me and another mother – neither of whom were related to any involved child) just carried on chatting and feigned ignorance. Beautiful. Kid toned it down after that. Jungle law does kick in after a while, but when children are really small, it’s difficult, especially if their well-intentioned parents won’t effectively discipline. I just think it’s a shame that your child must not socialise for fear of being terrorised.

  12. Diane Jun 20 at 11:00 am Reply Reply

    That’s really tough. But I don’t think the OP should have to be the one to leave the group. If this person is your friend, you should address this with her, and I like the idea of having a zero tolerance across the board. No one is singled out but rules are rules.

    I also understand lots of people saying “you don’t know what the underlying issues are” which is true, but as a mother it’s also not my problem. Your child is aggressive with my child, the reasons are not my concern. It needs to not happen again, full stop. If the aggressive child is the one with a backstory, then that’s the kid that needs to sit out, whether it be because they are too immature, have psychological problems, or any other reason under the sun. Hitting/pushing/etc is not ok.

    • Anon Jul 11 at 6:40 pm Reply Reply

      Thank you for this. My husband lost a friendship of more than 15 years because their 3.5 year old hit our 2.5 year old in the face with a large wooden toy (huge black and blue lump above his eye; 2 inches different and the eyesocket could have been shattered) and they just did not get this. We were actually ok after it happened (kids will be kids) until my husbands friend admitted that this was an ongoing issue that they were having. Given that they had not only not warned us but they had actively encouraged us to let all the boys play together in the basement playroom while the adults were upstairs it was just too much for my husband. 

  13. jill Jun 21 at 12:10 pm Reply Reply

    One thought about the “no pushing” “no hitting” etc… Kids have to be a certain developmental age before they understand negative sentences. For most kids it’s between 3 and 4. So, when you say “no pushing” they hear “pushing” and don’t understand why they did something wrong. 

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