By Jennifer L.W. Fink, Studio One Networks
Emma Planavski, 4, has been friends with two other little girls ever since they were two. "The three girls are inseparable," says Emma's mom, Tracey, of Montclair, N.J. "But as they've gotten older, her interests are a bit different than theirs." On one recent playdate, Emma's friends wanted to play dress-up; Emma did not. "She got very angry," says Tracey. "She went up to her bedroom and pouted and cried while the other girls played."
It's hard enough for two preschool pals to negotiate and compromise their way through a playdate. Adding another child to the mix raises all sorts of new issues: exclusion, ganging up, jealousy and the added pressure to appease two kids while still looking out for yourself. "It takes a lot of sophisticated social skills to work in a group," says Dr. Robyn J. A. Silverman, a child and adolescent development specialist. "It's very hard for a preschooler to consider the needs and wants of multiple people, while still considering her own needs at the same time."
By age three, most children have moved beyond the parallel play of the toddler years to interactive reciprocal play. At the same time, they are starting to select their own friends, based on mutual interests, rather than on proximity. But when those interests conflict, watch out! Three friends, playing happily, may suddenly explode into angry outbursts.
"Preschoolers don't know how to resolve conflict and they don't know how to communicate," says Dr. Silverman. "They're not going to say, 'I feel sad when you don't include me.' They'll simply fly off the handle, push somebody or say, 'I hate you! You're not my friend anymore!'" Social skills are learned, and you can help your child make her way through the forest of group play by teaching her some basic skills. Here, some suggestions:
- Keep trying When a three-way playdate goes bad, your first reaction may be, "Never again." But that robs your child of the chance to develop his group social skills. Prepare him for future attempts by pointing out the positives -- how much fun they all had playing hide and seek together, and what a great host he was to let his friends choose the next activity.
- Huddle up Talk to the threesome at the beginning of a playdate. Say something like, "We all want to have a great time, right? How can we make sure everyone has fun?" Allow the children time to respond, and then help them think of ways to include everyone in their play.
- Encourage turn-taking Ask each child to pick a group activity and help the three of them decide what order to play them in. For example: First, dress-up. Second, dolls. After lunch, drawing.
- Teach assertiveness Compromising is not the same as caving in. Even if your child is the host, she needs to stand up for himself -- especially if there are two friends to juggle instead of just one. Yelling, "I hate you!" is not assertive, nor is productive. You can teach your child to state her case calmly: "I don't want to do that right now" or "You're not letting me play, too."
- Allow time and space for cool-downs When tempers explode, sometimes the best thing to do is to temporarily separate the children. "Emma definitely needs time to calm down," says Tracey. "In the end, though, when she cools off and is not so angry, she can think through what to do so they can play together again."
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