Help, My Best Friend’s Kid is Being Mean to My Kid!
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So. I have a 10-year-old daughter, and a 5-year-old son. My best friend, my platonic soulmate, has a 10-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. My kids are neurotypical, while her kids aren’t: her son was recently diagnosed as autistic, and her daughter has a host of diagnoses, including ADHD, barely-on-the-spectrum autism, anxiety, and those don’t seem to be all of it, yet, based on what the doctors are saying. My friend is an amazing mother to her kids and has an incredibly difficult daily life, which includes a lot of conflict with her daughter.
My problem is: My friend’s daughter and my daughter are good friends. However, my friend’s daughter is not kind to my son. My son often wants to play with the girls when they’re playing together, and his social skills/needs/desires actually line up much more closely with my friend’s daughter, than there is alignment between the girls. My daughter welcomes my son into their play, but my friend’s daughter is often unkind to him (she ridicules him, sneers at him, runs away from him…). Up until recently, my son saw of all of this as a joke, but he recently shifted, and has been very upset about things that happen when they all play together.
I think that my son would be best served in being kept separate from my friend’s daughter (for a while, at least). My friend’s daughter wants time alone with my daughter. My daughter doesn’t seem to have super strong feelings about spending time with my friend’s daughter. My friend wants the girls to have playdates without my son. My son would be upset if he felt like he was being left out (he’s 5! It’s possible to get around this, to some degree, though odds are good he’ll eventually notice). I’m trying to figure out the message that I’m sending by hurting my son’s feelings for my friend’s daughter’s good, a person who bullies my son. I’m trying to figure out what message I’m sending to my daughter by circumventing my son. I’m feeling a little lost. Any thoughts?
Oy. My sympathies, as you’re actually facing two issues, here: First, the relative Sophie’s Choice dilemma of which kid’s needs get met, and second, the friction it’s undoubtedly causing in your friendship with the other mom. These are tricky waters. Failure to find a solution that pleases everyone could mean the loss of the friendship, and that would be awful.
As someone who’s raised non-neurotypical, sometimes-difficult kids, myself, let me start by saying that your willingness to cut this other girl some slack has hopefully not gone unnoticed, and you are a good friend to understand there’s a lot of issues here beyond “my kid is being bullied.” Pat yourself on the back for that, a little. A lot of people aren’t willing to see past their own children and don’t have the level of empathy you clearly do. But at the same time… as someone who’s raised non-neurotypical, sometimes-difficult kids, myself, let me also state in no uncertain terms that 1) your son should feel safe, 2) bullying is never okay, and 3) regardless of her issues, your friend’s daughter can and should be taught that meanness is unacceptable. A developmental disability such as autism or ADHD can render a person less able to intuitively understand when their behavior is harmful to others, but not unable to learn and do better. Her issues are an explanation, not an excuse.
Her issues are an explanation, not an excuse.
It sounds to me like there’s a few different things that need to happen here, so, in no particular order:
Talk to your kids about their rules/expectations when playing with others.
No one should be mean to anyone else, obviously, but that’s worth reiterating. Furthermore, in our house we always had a “your guest, your responsibility” rule—if one kid has a guest who is being unkind to the other kid, the onus is on the kid who did the inviting to say, “Hey, stop it. Don’t treat my sibling that way.” If they need backup, they can enlist a parent’s help, but make it clear (especially to your daughter, because she’s older) that they will, in some measure, be held accountable for their guests. Further explain that sometimes people slip up and make mistakes, and some people (whether you want to name the friend or not, up to you) have their own struggles which can make “good” behavior more challenging. Those people are to be treated with patience and kindness, but poor behavior is still to be called out and corrected.
Talk to your friend about what you’re comfortable saying to each others’ kids.
In my life I’ve had friendships that dissolved over time or even ended abruptly because of differences in parenting styles. It happens. The friends I’ve maintained whose kids are close in age to my own are always ones who will not only call out their own children, but mine as well. Now, that’s my preference—not everyone works that way, and some people have a strict “don’t tell my kids what to do” policy—but you and your friend have to determine how you each feel about this. I absolutely wanted other parents who would call my kids on the carpet when necessary. But I had friends who didn’t do that and/or got upset if I did it to their kids, and that’s often a friendship-killer. So talk to your friend and find out where you stand. Is she okay with you correcting her daughter? What parameters can you agree are acceptable; reach some agreement (if possible) that’s really concrete, such as “When Jenny comes to play, I will issue two warnings in response to unsavory behavior toward Bobby, and on the ‘third strike’ she will be asked to go home.” If you, the adults, agree on the framework, it should remove a lot of potential hurt feelings between the two of you, moving forward. Bonus: It should also make behavior improvement more likely, because the expectations will be clear and consistent.
Brainstorm logistical solutions, realizing that there may be more than one and it can/should change over time.
While “having playdates without your son” is not a long-term acceptable solution to you—and I get why you feel that way—maybe that’s part of the solution, for now. Maybe your daughter goes to your friend’s house, instead of the other way ’round, mostly. Maybe if your friend insists that’s the only solution she sees, you cut down on the frequency of those playdates because excluding your son is not something you’re willing to do a lot. I don’t know. But think about it, and talk about it with her. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that your friend sit down with her daughter and talk about why her behavior with your son is unacceptable—everything from “this is not how you treat another human” to “you are a guest in someone else’s house”—and that this child be held accountable for her behavior. Again: her issues are an explanation, not an excuse. She can be taught to do better. Front-load interactions in this child’s favor, such as limiting the length of playdates which include your son, and maybe setting up a structured activity for all of them so that there’s less opportunity to veer off into teasing, until the behavior improves. All of this requires some accountability on your friend’s part, and navigating this may be fraught and emotional. Be patient.
Your first responsibility is to your own kids
At the end of the day, I like the saying that we should “Do no harm, but take no s***.” You’re clearly sympathetic to your friend’s challenges with her kids. It sounds to me like you’re willing to go the extra mile to keep things workable. But your first responsibility is to your own kids, and you’re not under any obligation to let your friend’s child (or anyone else, for that matter) make them feel bad. If you are truly close friends, hopefully some honest conversation can clear the way for progress. If your friend is stuck in a place of “well, my kid can’t help it, this is just how she is, and that’s more important than your kid,” this may fracture your friendship. There’s no way to sugarcoat that, and I’m sorry. (I’ll also add: as the kids get older, your daughter may naturally drift away from her daughter, and that’s going to be a whole ‘nother issue.) I hope you’re able to find some productive common ground.
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