When a Young Friend is a Bad Influence

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You’re with your preschooler at the playground where she’s playing with a friend. The more you watch the more you notice the friend displaying some unsettling behaviors you hope your child won’t copy. When it’s time to leave, your child tells you how much she enjoyed playing with the friend and that she wants to have the child over to your house for a playdate.

You know your child will see the friend again because they are in the same preschool class. But you don’t want your child to pick up inappropriate behaviors – and you really don’t want those behaviors taking place at your home. What do you do?

Getting to know your preschooler’s friends

You’re on the right track by getting to know your child’s friends. Desiree W. Murray, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Duke University who specializes in early childhood interventions, recommends this and says volunteering at your child’s school is the best way to accomplish it. If a job or other commitment prohibits you from volunteering, however, there are other options.

“Ask your child who they’re playing with,” Murray suggests. You can also ask your child’s teacher. If you’re wondering how your child feels about someone in particular, ask her what she likes about the person before you offer an opinion. Then ask about her friend’s troubling behaviors in a way that assumes the child can improve. Murray suggests something like: “I notice Molly still seems to be learning to keep her hands to herself.”

If you’re concerned your child might think such behaviors are OK, ask, “How do you think that makes other children feel when she does that?”

“The last thing you want to do is label the friend as a ‘bad kid’ because you want your child to learn to get along with different personalities and avoid reinforcing a negative reputation for a young child who may have real behavior problems,” Murray says. She also advises that parents not get into conflicts with their children over friends, even at this age.

How to handle the play date

“Many parents think they can protect their children from negative influences, but that’s not going to happen,” says Karen Buchanan, a psychologist and parent consultant for Project Enlightenment, a Wake County Public School System program focusing on early childhood education. “Not playing with the person is not going to protect your child from bad influences.”

Instead, Buchanan advises parents to teach their kids how to make healthy choices when deciding who their friends should be. She also recommends that parents remind children to be assertive and to be the “boss” of their own bodies so they won’t feel like they have to copy others’ behaviors.

If you do invite the questionable friend to your house, Buchanan recommends actively supervising the playdate. “You need to be willing to be the social coach for the time frame, to reiterate rules and to monitor behavior,” she says. Buchanan also advises parents to keep the playdate “short and sweet.”

If your child becomes a copycat

If your child begins copying his friend’s behavior, he’s doing it to learn. It’s normal for 4-year-olds to try things out so they can differentiate appropriate from inappropriate actions. In fact, children are more likely to copy a behavior if it elicits attention. Murray advises that when you talk to your child about the inappropriate

behavior, don’t bring up the friend’s name because the correlation you offer should not involve a critique of the other child. “If your child mentions the friend, redirect the attention to the behavior by saying ‘We don’t do that’ or ‘That can hurt people,'” Murray says.

While this situation may seem like a minefield for parents, both Murray and Buchanan emphasize the important social development taking place as kids make friendship choices. Children are learning how to get along with all types of personalities – a skill that translates well into the adult world.  n

Sean Drummond is a freelance writer and stay-at-home dad of a toddler and preschooler. He blogs about adventures with his kids at http://besteducateddad.blogspot.com.

Additional Resources

Karen Buchanan, a psychologist and parent consultant for Project Enlightenment in Wake County, recommends the following books to help children learn about positive friendships.

  • Share and Take Turns by Cheri Meiners
  • Don’t Do That – How Not to Act by Janine Amos
  • Shubert’s New Friend by Dr. Becky Bailey
  • Dinofours series by Steve Metzger
  • Do You Want to Play? by Bob Kolar
  • Free Spirit Publications publishes books by a variety of authors and topics relevant to social-emotional development: www.freespirit.com.
Categories: Early Education, Health and Development, Preschool Development, Preschool Early Learning, Preschoolers