Can You Trust Your Child’s Social Instincts? Or is She a Bully?

In this episode: A parent who describes her 3-year-old as “bright and spirited… a sweet girl” has noticed lately in certain social situations that her daughter will flatly reject friendly overtures from peers. This makes the parent very uncomfortable, but she isn’t sure how or if to intervene. She writes, “I am so torn between accepting and trusting her and wanting to teach her to be nice to others.”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be responding to a parent who’s worried about her daughter’s unwillingness to engage with certain peers when they’re clearly trying to be friendly with her. On the one hand, she wants to trust her daughter’s instincts, but she also wants her to be friendly and inclusive toward other children.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi, Janet. I have a very bright and spirited three year-old. I respect your work and advice very much and would be very interested in your feedback on a particular situation we seemed to be coming across in social situations, for example, in today’s ballet class. Before class my daughter was doing some running and jumping outside the hall. A little ballet peer came up to join in, but she retreated. Throughout the class, the little girl kept trying to engage, but she wasn’t interested at all in reciprocating, including holding her hand in the circle at the end. The girl’s mom switched places with her, and my daughter happily held her hand. Later I asked her why she didn’t want to hold hands or play with the girl, and her response was, ‘I just don’t like her.’ This makes me hugely uncomfortable considering today’s bullying epidemic and all the horrible things you hear about in schools. My daughter’s a sweet girl and does have some little friends she loves to socialize with often. I’m so torn between accepting and trusting her and wanting to teach her to be nice to others and to include them. I’m at a total loss. Advice? I appreciate you get so many calls for advice but thought I would try my luck for a response. Many thanks.”

Okay, so this is a situation where I believe we have to zoom out and look at the big picture. What’s our end goal? What lessons do we want our child to learn about social situations and dealing with other children and other human beings? When we see the bigger picture, these situations and how to handle them often become clearer.

Now, in this situation, there are a couple of different things this little girl could learn. She could learn that her choice to not like someone, to not want to engage with a girl who is pursuing her attention is wrong and, therefore, her instinct to do that is wrong, and she needs to engage with everyone who wants to engage with her, reciprocate whether she’s feeling it or not. And I doubt if this parent really thinks about it that she wants her child to learn that. Most of us want to teach our children to be discerning about other people, to trust their instincts and to form relationships with people that they have chemistry with, with people that are affirming for them, that they enjoy.

It sounds like this little girl didn’t behave rudely. If that was the case, then I might take my child aside confidentially, and say, “Ooh, come here. I can’t let you push her,” or I would come in and say, “Oh, I can’t let you push her. It sounds like you’re saying you don’t want to hold hands.” But I would try to totally support my child to be discerning and make those choices so that they can continue to have confidence in their instincts and their process.

We’re all in a process of social learning. It goes on throughout our life. It’s a very complicated thing to understand where we fit with other people and each person’s different. What kind of people do I enjoy? And who do I have good relationships with? What feels affirming to me? And then how to respond and interact with people in a way that helps develop positive relationships. This is lifelong learning.

It sounds like this other girl in the ballet class is also in a process of learning how to read signals from other children. It sounds like she’s not quite there yet, because this little girl was giving her signals that she didn’t want to engage with her. She didn’t want to join with her, and the girl kept pursuing her and kept trying. That means that she hasn’t yet started to tune into the body language and the vibes she’s getting from other children, and that’s a very important thing for her to learn.

So, they’re both in a process, and I feel like the daughter in this note, I think she handled that just fine, and I can understand how hard it is to trust and to not project the worst case scenario about our children. I think we all do that. It’s just human nature to worry and to fear the worst when it’s such an important job that we’re doing with our children, and we feel everything is so crucial, and we do have a lot of power. But, if this mother did give her daughter the feeling that she didn’t approve of her action, that would actually create less security in her child and less trust in herself to navigate these situations.

So, yes, we do want to intervene when our children cross a line into rudeness or antisocial behavior, but rejecting another child or being rejected, these are all age-appropriate experiences that are part of our child’s process.

A learning process is not always comfortable. It’s not always smooth. It’s very, very messy in fact, and there’s a lot of struggle involved, and it sounds like this other girl is in a bit of a struggle to learn how to engage with other children in a way that they invite. The fact that this little girl decided to hold the adult’s hand, well, maybe she was getting a more relaxed feeling from her.

One thing that children do tend to read really well in other children or in us as adults is when other children or we as their parents want something too much. You may notice that if you want your child to do something, your child picks that up and, often in these toddler years, will push back on it. And that’s why things like toilet learning and, I don’t know, even outings and all kinds of experiences and social behavior… is a tricky thing to try to coax our child into. Children are so intuitive about our feelings. They sense our agendas, and it is their natural inclination, developmentally appropriate and healthy to push back.

So, we really have to learn to control this in ourselves, and it’s hard and it’s all based in trust — basic trust in our child as a healthy person, a capable person, and a person in a process that has a unique timetable. We can’t control it. So, whenever we find ourselves hugely uncomfortable, like this parent says that this experience made her “hugely uncomfortable considering today’s bullying epidemic and all the horrible things you hear about in schools,” that we have to be careful of and really take a look at and say, “Why did I jump there? Why did I project that? What is it in me that I fear? Is it a failure in me? Is it something that I was criticized for as a child? What is going on here that made me jump to that?”

It’s always interesting to figure out, and it’s actually the most helpful thing as parents to take the time to delve in to what’s going on with us so that we can be more aware of the difference between what our child is doing and what we’re seeing and fearing and projecting.

The fact that this little girl is a sweet girl and does have some little friends she loves to socialize with, as this mother says, she’s doing just fine. She’s right on track, and she’s a spirited girl, so she’s going to have strong opinions. The best thing we can do is trust so that children continue to build confidence in themselves, and it’s the confident children that aren’t bullies or victims, that have healthy social skills and that want to be kind to others because they’re secure in themselves.

So, the best thing we can do is trust our child so that our child feels that backing from us to be who they are. That sense of security will breed a lot of positive behaviors, like being kind to other children, being compassionate, having empathy, all these things that we want. Mostly our children learn that through our modeling, and modeling that patience and empathy for them in their process is the crucial part of that. That’s what they’re learning, and it’s the secure children who don’t tend to be bullies or victims because they have that strength at their core.

There are many, many challenges in parenting. I feel like every time I do one of these, I’m saying this is huge challenge. Well, this is another huge challenge: trusting our child to navigate their social skills and feel all the ups and downs that go with that, all the rough edges. That’s how children learn, through experience.

I would also say that it sounds like these children are handling it fine, but a class that’s organized like that, a ballet class for a three year-old, is a bit of a stretch still. It’s certainly not necessary. If this parent chose this and thinks it’s fine, and her daughter likes it, that’s fine, but also know that it’s not something that children just relax into. There’s a lot going on there for them, and they may not be at their very best behavior in those kind of situations as they would if it was a less-structured situation at home or in the park, somewhere like that.

So, I think that’s another element just to understand — that these experiences are charged up a bit. There’s some stress and reaching involved for all the children. “Who are these people? Who is this teacher? What’s my relationship with these other children? What’s expected of me here?” All these things, even in the loosest kind of class, it’s still something for children to step up to. So, a child like this might want to hold onto some control of herself in that situation, and that might mean not letting go and joining with the girl that she’s not sure about.

I hope that’s helpful.

Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thank you for listening. We can do this.



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi Janet,
    My 3 year old is going to be starting a ballet class in a couple weeks. I’m on board with what you said as far as a structured class not being necessary for this age, but she is interested and I’d like her to have an opportunity to see an adult, other than me, as an authority figure. It’s only once a week for a month so we’re gonna try it out. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions to prepare her for it?

  2. Wow, I’m so thankful for this podcast. My daughter is 4.5 but has exhibited the same behavior since toddlerhood. I’m learning to see her for who she is–perhaps tending towards introversion–and I love the confidence she shows in choosing her friendships. Having grown up believing that being nice meant pleasing everyone, I am definitely learning a lot as her parent! One question that has really challenged me is what to say to the other parent in these situations. This podcast makes me want to focus even more on just being there for my child, and letting relationships with other parents come naturally out of that.

  3. Callie Krispin says:

    Hi Janet,

    I am curious about what you recommend to help the child wanting this little girl’s attention. You mention that she is learning to read social cues from her peers, which is an important skill. How might her parent support her in that learning process? My 3 year old son has played with the same children every week for the past year. Only within the last 4 months has he shown an interest in engaging with them. He comes on strong and doesn’t listen to the other children saying “No, please stop!”, or even stop after they’ve pushed him out of frustration. I am there to observe the interaction and intervene if anything gets too physical, but I’m not exactly sure what to say or do when he is not listening to them say “stop, you can’t play with us”.

    Any advice or guidance to a piece you’ve done covering this topic would be appreciated. Thanks!

  4. Callie Krispin says:

    Hi Janet,

    I am curious about what you recommend to help the child wanting this little girl’s attention. You mention that she is learning to read social cues from her peers, which is an important skill. How might her parent support her in that learning process?

  5. Callie Krispin says:

    Sorry! For some reason the rest of my post did not go through…

    I am observing my 3 year old son behaving similarly to the girl who wants to play. He has played with the same group of kids for over a year now, but it has only been within the past 4 months that he has cared about engaging with them. He often comes on too strong and does not stop when his friend says “no, please stop doing that” or even gives him a little push out of frustration. I never let things get too physical, but before the situation escalates to physicality, I’m not sure when or how I should intervene. I feel stuck between wanting to just observe and let him feel the feeling of “I’m annoying this kid, he’s not going to want to play with me if I keep doing this, that’s disappointing for me, it’s okay to feel disappointed” and feeling like I’m not supporting either child. I think there must be something in between that is the best third solution, I just don’t know what it is.

    Any advice or guidance to a post you’ve already created would be so helpful. Thank you!

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