Navigating the Playground with a Child Who Seems Too Physical, Shy, Huggy, or Bossy

Janet offers her advice for navigating typical playground behaviors in preschool-aged children, such as physical aggression, bossiness and shyness. Whether our child is exhibiting these behaviors or is on the receiving end of another child’s dysregulation, Janet shares how helping children to feel understood, protected, and supported encourages the most positive learning process.

Transcript of “Navigating the Playground with a Child Who Seems Too Physical, Shy, Huggy, or Bossy”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today instead of responding to an individual question, I’m going to offer some recommendations that I have for a composite of a lot of different questions that I receive in regard to different things that happen on the playground, when we go to the playground with our child, ways that they might behave, ways that other children are behaving, and where we want to support our child. So these are different types of issues children have that parents commonly ask me about. I’m going to be covering some of the basics, obviously not able to get into every nuance as I’d like to, but as much as I can in the 25 minutes or so that this podcast will last.

Okay, so I want to start with my basic general advice. This is based on the RIE training that I have, the training I have with Magda Gerber, and also on the many, many, many hours of classes I’ve done with parents and their infants and toddlers up to age, maybe, three and a half — the dynamics that go on and what I notice is most helpful for children in learning to socialize with each other, which is one of the reasons we want them on the playground, and one of the reasons they want to go to the playground.

So my basic general advice, and of course if parents aren’t uncomfortable with this, they should do what they’re comfortable with… My suggestion is to go to the playground with your child, have a place that you will park yourself, and stay there as much as possible, unless you need to intervene. And I’m going to talk all about the different ways and different reasons to intervene.

Oftentimes parents will go around the playground next to their child. The reason I don’t recommend that is while we think we’re just being supportive to them and helpful to maybe what they want, let’s say they’re asking us to come around with them, they’re holding our hand and trying to pull us over to the different areas of the playground, or to where the different children are, by going along with that, we are giving our child the message that we agree that they need us next to them to participate in activities on the playground, when this is an age appropriate situation for young children, and one that they can learn a great deal from.

Another reason is that if we’re moving around with our child, we are not being what in Attachment Theory is the “secure base.”  We are moving around with our child, and so our child doesn’t have that experience of being able to leave us as the confident explorer, and then return to us and know where we are all the time. They have that security, that secure base. And from that place that we park ourselves, I would right away start observing.

So, I wouldn’t start socializing, I wouldn’t be on my phone, I would be paying attention to the energy, and maybe I already know this going in, the mood, the space my child is in. Are they tired? Are they fresh? How has their behavior been lately? Do they seem off balance? Have they had recent difficulties on the playground or socializing with other children? I want to know that, and I also want to suss out the energy of the other children that are there.

So if I see a child who seems quite dysregulated, or their behavior is “out there,” you can see that in children — they’re vibrating with this out of control energy, then I know, okay, if my child goes near that child, I may need to slowly come close. That may be a time I need to leave my spot and intervene. So I want to be as aware as possible, and if there’s the possibility of something unsafe, I want to be close and be able to get there and be there in a calm way to support my child. That’s the best way to support our child… if we are regulated, if we are in a calm, open, observant place.

Another reason that I might go to my child is if I see them going on to some equipment that they haven’t mastered, is not completely safe, or maybe there’s another child on the equipment, and maybe I know that my child sometimes goes up to another child on the equipment, or I see that this child’s energy might be doing that, and while separately my child might be safe on this equipment, together I’m not sure. So I’m going to come closer, slowly walking over to be close. And the reason to be close is so we can do the most minimal thing to keep our child safe, because that’s almost always the best kind of intervention. It’s the most empowering, supportive intervention to our child.

Ideally we want to be able to have our child stay in the situation, but we’re there to keep them safe. So if they’re going on equipment, we’re going to be spotting underneath them, and if our child says, “Help me do this, help me up,” I wouldn’t help them up, because that isn’t as safe for me to do it for them, I want my child to get their own sense of balance, know their own ability, so that they can build on that. So if my child said that I would say, “Ah, you want me to help you do it? I’m going to help keep you safe, I won’t let you get hurt.” And then if my child slipped or started to fall, I would actually try to let them still feel that gravity of going down, but I’m there cushioning their fall, making sure that it’s a safe fall, they can’t get hurt. So that would be the ideal, always better to do less so that our child can experience and learn more.

So I’m in my spot, and I’m aware, I’m observant. Now if my child has been to this place a bunch of times and I see everybody’s got calm energy, sure, then I could socialize with someone, or do something else, take my attention away for a bit. But I may also want to learn about my child, what’s going on with them, especially if I don’t have a lot of time with my child. Maybe I work outside the home, or I’m busy a lot, and this is my time of day where I get to be together. I would want to be mindfully present, because we learn so much by observing. What’s my child working on? What are they interested in today? How do they engage? Are their efforts successful or are they getting a little stuck in certain things? Are they working through ways of engaging with other children?

There are two big things that can get in our way of intervening in the kinds of ways that I’m going to suggest, and they’re linked. One is fear, the other is projection. And again, those two happen together. So if I’m afraid that my child is not a nice person with other children, and then I’m maybe even projecting that my child is going to be mean to other children, they’re going to hurt them, they’re going to hit them… or, on the other hand, that my child is helpless and might get very easily discouraged if something goes wrong, then I might perceive my child as either this villain or this victim.

That’s just one example, there are so many projections. We can project: oh, I really struggle to make friends, and now I see my child seems reticent in certain situations, oh no, they’re going to be like me, I was really unhappy as a child and I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to help them.

And then we end up projecting to our child a lot of judgment and fear around them just being themselves and their process at this moment. They’re trying to understand why this child pushed them, or why they tried to play and that child ran off to somewhere else. They’re curious.

It’s interesting because children go into these situations with what would help us to go into them with: interest and curiosity. Why did this child do this, what’s going on with them? They don’t come in with the baggage that we naturally have. And the more we can be aware of our own, and usually when parents write to me they’ll say, like this one parent said recently, “My husband and I are very outgoing and our child isn’t, they want to stick with us when they’re in a social situation, and it’s really hard not to judge that they’re just not fun person, they’re boring.”

But if we know those things, knowledge is power. Then we can find a way to calm ourselves to understand that every child is different, they have their own process. And actually all of the examples I’m going to give today for children that seem, because I don’t want to label them, but it seems like they’re a bossy child, too passive, too huggy, too physical, or too shy, those are all examples of children who are interested in engaging socially, and that’s why they’re doing what they’re doing. So I’m only saying that to normalize that, from what I’ve seen, where I sit, all of these behaviors are normal for that child in that moment. It’s just where they are in the process. And if we could trust that, it would take such a load of pressure off of ourselves, and really help us to be these observers that can come in and minimally intervene for our child’s maximum benefit.

Okay, so first let’s talk about a bossy child who seems too bossy with other children. They’re telling these children to play this way and that way, and they want to be in charge of everything.

With some children, maybe that’s working, because that’s interesting to some children that somebody’s got all these ideas, and they get to play along and they get to join in. Other children will step back from that. They won’t want to join in. Those are all healthy options. But let’s say the bossy child is saying something like, “I don’t want to play with you, I don’t like you,” or, “I won’t play if you don’t do,” this, that, or the other. There we have to make a judgment call as to if my child is actually being unkind.

Through some lenses, when we’re projecting, it looks like all of it’s unkind, all of it’s wrong. But it’s not unkind to say “I don’t want to play with you.” Really, it’s not unkind to say “I won’t play if you don’t do A, B, or C.”

“I don’t like you” is a little unkind, so that I would probably intervene on a little more, go up to my child in a private way, not yelling across the playground, but I would walk up as calmly as possible, “Could you come here for a second? That can be really hurtful when you say those things to children. I think what you’re saying is you don’t want to play, right? Because I don’t really think you know them well enough to not like them. But in this moment it sounds like you’re disappointed.”

So interpreting for our child what they’re saying can help. And these are all basics: 1) observing, 2) going in close if needed from a neutral, curious place, because we know it’s all part of the process, 3) intervening as needed, like the example I just offered, and 4) interpreting when we intervene.

Because what the seemingly bossy child needs to learn is what works with other children and what doesn’t, and most of that will happen experientially. The seemingly bossy child commonly feels a little out of control in some parts of their life, and so they’re trying to gain control by controlling others. It could be that they’re in a big transition, like a new sibling, or a second sibling, those will put a child off balance. It could be that the parent isn’t as comfortable and on top of boundaries with his child, which can also make a child feel off balance, out of control. I’ve got too much power here. So that can also be a reason that children seem to behave that way.

Let’s say our child is on the other end of that exchange. The bossy child wasn’t my child, so I’m not going to intervene with that child. I’m going to take my cues from attuning to my child.

Instead of assuming that my child feels really bad about this thing that just happened, is slighted, or whatever, I would really notice, because oftentimes, as I was saying, children are just curious. Wow, I wonder what’s going on with her? That’s pretty out there for her to say, ‘”I don’t like you,” or, “I won’t play with you.” She doesn’t want to play with me.

Oftentimes it’s just interesting to a child, they’re trying to figure out what just happened. So I wouldn’t go in with any pity, of course, or anything, but taking notice, neutrally.

And if my child looks really puzzled, that’s when I might acknowledge and help interpret. “So you said you didn’t want to play that game and now she said she doesn’t want to play at all with you, I guess she wanted you to play a certain game.” Or, “Wow, she’s saying she doesn’t like you because she doesn’t like that you said no to the game.”

So just interpreting. We’re not blaming anybody. We’re not feeling sorry for anybody. We’re trusting both children as being in a process that they are capable of being in with our support.

And this is where, when I start talking about these things, then I think about people that say, “Oh, the RIE approach, or Magda Gerber’s approach, is just about you sit back and you just let the children do whatever.”

Actually, this is the most attuned approach that I have ever heard of in terms of what we’re really noticing, being careful not to project our own stuff or over intervene. It’s very, very thoughtful. So if somebody tries to tell you that the RIE approach is about turning away and just hanging back and not getting involved, they don’t understand this approach at all. Because there aren’t just two extremes — that you are in there all over it, or you’re ignoring. There’s this sweet spot that we’re not going to be able to hit all the time, but we want to try for, that’s very attune. We’re being mindful of ourselves and our own feelings, and we’re being open to what’s happening in this process. Because children, again, they learn so much when we don’t take over and make it about us.

Now let’s use another example of a very physical child, physically aggressive, or just having difficulty containing their physical behaviors. This often happens with very young children who don’t have a lot of verbal expression yet.

So when a child is coming in and hitting or pushing, one thing we can say for sure is that child is not comfortable in the situation. Maybe somebody is too close to me, I don’t like what’s going on, they are dysregulated in some way. So if we know our child is going through this, we’re going to probably do what I said not to do in the beginning, which is stay by them. If we think that it’s good for them to be in this situation: be close, be what I call buddy guard, which is a very chilled out, neutral, but very aware parent or teacher ready to block whatever might happen before it happens.

So if I’m right there, it’s really easy for me to put up my hand and say, “Whoa, it looks like you want to connect with him, but I can’t let you do it hitting.” And my hand was there right away, my arm is out, or as much as it needs to be. So I’m not going to let any physical stuff happen if I can help it.

If I’m sitting there and all of a sudden it takes me by surprise that my child does this, and I’m sitting back in my spot as the secure base, then I will stride in. Maybe if something looks really dangerous or harmful that my child is really hurting, I would run in then. And then I would say, “Oh, I can’t let you do that, I’ve got to stop you,” and then to this other child, “Are you okay?” Checking them out.

And then again, if that other child, the quote “victim” of this, was my child, then I wouldn’t rush in and grab them, I would block to make sure it’s not going to happen again, and I might say the same thing, “Oh, I can’t let you hit him. It looks like you didn’t like what just happened, or I don’t know if you’re trying to say hi, but that’s not safe.” My hand was already there.

So to my child, I would check out how they’re feeling, what they think about that. “Are you all right? Sorry that I wasn’t there to stop that from happening.”

And if my child was in floods of tears, then yeah I might say, “Oh gosh, that was really upsetting for you.”

I’m very close, and I’m wanting to hear the feelings. I’m still not grabbing my child and moving them out of there unless they really can’t recover from the feelings, and then I would escort my child to where I’m sitting on the bench, or something, and have them come sit with me, and then see if they need to go home, or if they want to play more.

So the messages we want to give to the child who’s, again, the quote “victim” is that I see you, I’m interested. Are you okay? I’m here for you. If the child reached out to me, of course we’d be hugging, but I don’t want to override their feelings and give them a message: oh, you can’t handle this, other children are overwhelming. Because those things will discourage my child from their interest in engaging socially, and that’s the opposite of what I want to do, I want to encourage their interest. I want to encourage them.

Let’s go with another example: a huggy child, a child that goes in and wants to hug every child. I actually get a lot of questions about that, and it’s an interesting one because usually it is a form of physical aggression, but it’s a socially acceptable form of it to the parent, so the child does it. Sometimes it is that they’re genuinely adoring of children and want to hug them, that can be the case too. But even then I would be aware that this may not be welcome behavior with other children, and I don’t want the other child to feel that they aren’t supported there. And I don’t want my child to feel like it’s okay to do that with everybody, because it’s not.

Sometimes children get a big hoopla about it because it does look adorable to us, and we make a big deal out of it, and then sometimes you’ll even see a child hugging, and they’re looking at the parents. See I’m doing this adorable thing that you gave me kudos for, and what do you think of this? So it’s inauthentic that they’re hugging, they’re not doing it from a place of affection. But like I said, regardless, we want to be there. So if we know that our child has this tendency, when I see my child going up to another child, I would be the buddy guard. I’d be ready to come close so I can be right there. Then I see my child reach out to hug, but my hand was there right away. (You can’t see me, but I’m even doing it here while I’m doing this podcast.)

So you come close. Right away you see your child start to reach out, you’re going to put your hand there so it can’t happen, ideally, and you’re going to stop your child very gently there, but firmly, just so nothing’s going to get around you, or whatever. And you say, “It looks like you want to hug this child, I’m not sure if they want that.”

Then I’m looking at the other child, “Looks like he wants to say hello to you and hug you, but I’m not sure if you’re comfortable with that.” And I’ll get a vibe from that child, and if the vibe is anything but looking excited to hug back, or very open to it, very relaxed, if there’s any tension there at all, then I’m not going to let my child do that, because of the messages I want both of them to get about personal boundaries that people have. And even though this seems so much sweeter than a hit, it’s still about personal boundaries.

So if my child goes up and tries to do this again to someone else, I’m just going to keep stopping them, but I might say, “It looks like you’re really having a hard time, you really want to hug,” and this would be the same if a child was hitting, pushing. I’m blocking the behavior, especially the second time, now I’m ready. I’m not going to let it happen again.

And I would apologize to that other child if I let it happen and the child seemed uncomfortable. So I would say to the other child, or let’s say the other child is my child I would say, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to stop that. It looks like you weren’t ready for that, or you weren’t wanting that hug right then.” And sometimes you can give children a little language, “You can put your hand up and say no,” not expecting that they’re going to be able to do it right away, just as a suggestion.

So again, if my child was the quote “victim” of this, I wouldn’t judge that other child, I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it, even if the other child was hitting, because I know that that child is doing the best that they can in that moment. Yeah, it is hard not to get all mother bear or father bear when our child gets hurt, absolutely, and we can’t blame ourselves if we do that.

I remember one time, I talked about this in my book, No Bad Kids, I was walking with my daughter over to the playground and this boy, who was with his dad, came all the way around three corners of the playground and ran up just to hit my child, and he was a little older. I was just stunned. I mean, that seemed so over the top to me. I didn’t start screaming at him, but I was very surprised, and I had my hand there right away and I said, “Oh, nope, I’m not going to let you do that.” He went back off running to his dad.

Thinking about it later I thought, wow, he really wanted his dad to notice that everything wasn’t okay with him. This was raising a flag to his dad: see me, see what I’m doing, see how far I’m going to show you I’m not okay.

So there’s always a reason children do these things. And yes, I would apologize if another child got hurt because of my child, I would apologize to that child, “Oh, I’m so sorry. That really, really hurt.” But I wouldn’t do what I hear some people recommend, I just don’t believe in this, that we would then say to our child, “Look, you made him cry, see how sad he is that you hit him.” Because children are the most aware people on the planet. And I know that my child, or this other child, is going to see all those things, they don’t need me to point it out to them. They’re there taking it all in and more, and feeling the shame, and feeling the sadness, and feeling whatever it was, the confusion, the fear that made them do that, so I don’t need to add to that.

I would want to understand it as that parent of that child, I would want to understand it, and what I could do to help my child. It may just be a “see me in my pain” situation. See me in my confusion and my discomfort.

So now let’s quickly talk about the passive or shy child. So this is the child that’s sitting with the parent at the playground, doesn’t want to go play, maybe tries to pull the parent to go play with them. This child is watching the other children, they want to learn how to engage, they’re sussing it out.

Oftentimes they’re children who want to come in, and I have one child like this, she likes to come in at the top of things, already gliding in elegantly knowing just where she fits, just how it’s all done, she wasn’t a jump in child. She took her time so that she could master the situation and come in with aplomb. So there are children like that. It’s a very strong choice that they’re making to wait until they’re ready, and it may not even be at that trip to the playground, or the next one.

Some parents I know could never do this, but I recommend saying, “I’m going to stay here, I’d love to have you sit with me and hang with me,” and hold our ground, so we’re giving them the option at all times: you can go in and explore this, or you can be with me. Either one’s great for me.

Then we’re actually going to get what we want sooner, which is that our child does make a move. But if we’re trying to get them out there, “Oh, look over there, there’s some fun stuff, don’t you want to play with this?” Or, “If I bring you over here, maybe you’ll like it.” If we’re patient and if our child doesn’t feel us trying to get them away from us, trying to get them to do something, then they feel that emotional space, and also that we’re not judging them as, my child, what’s the matter with her? I’m worried about her, there’s something wrong with her.  They’re going to feel that vibe and it’s going to make it less possible for them to let go of us.

But if we’re like: I love this. She’s going to be older soon and she won’t want to hang out with me, so let’s do it. If we have that attitude, then we’ll be surprised that our child will make a move when they’re ready.

And then if they’re more passive in a situation with another child, let’s say a child comes up and wants to play with them and they turn and run away, or whatever, those are still strong choices: “You’re thinking about this,” or “you weren’t ready right then.”

So basically what I’m saying is these are all places to trust, to try to help where we can when there are things going on that are stressing our child out so they’re not at their best, but they’re not problems to be afraid of.

And some of the things we can say to our child afterwards… if there was an exchange with another child, let’s say with the bossier child, and our child looks confused, we could say, “How was that for you? Yeah, I noticed that he had a really strong opinion about wanting you to play a certain way.” Again, from that neutral place.

There’s positive power in staying neutral, it brings out the best in children. They also surprise us how they’ll give a child another chance, they’ll forgive right away, they’ll see the best in each other, more often than not, they can really inspire us if we let them. So go into these experiences with confidence. Be ready to help as much as needed, but trust in your child to navigate with your support.

I hope some of this helps. Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.

At last! I’ve created the No Bad Kids Master Course to give you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand  and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! Check out all the details at ♥


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

  1. Thank you so much for this brilliant post. Our 14 month old is climbing but not quite walking and we braved soft play for the first time this weekend (listened to the podcast enroute) we were able to sit back and enjoy him exploring (I definitely would have hung over him) and I watched my husband gently block another child trying to bounce a ball off his head by nipping in and calmly blocking not reacting at all. We all had a great time and I feel like I understand my role so much more clearly. Many thanks for this and the many other wonderful posts.

    1. How exciting you put this into practice immediately and had a great time! Well done! and you are so welcome. Thank you for sharing with me and making my day. x Janet

  2. Anick Lamarche says:

    Interestingly enough I have learned a lot in previous posts about my behaviour at the park (yes mine, not my toddler’s). I am a little perplexed with this specific situation and my mother hen does want to come out: We love a park and it is truly an amazing set-up. However, the issue is that since back-to-school it is hovered by teenagers. Teenagers exhibiting behaviours I am not keen on exposing my young one to: swearing, spitting, littering, aggressive play and disrespectful behaviours on the whole.
    I see my little ones eyes open and he takes it all in and I am not too sure how to cater to that….talk about it, let it go, stay closer than I normally would, ask the teenagers to give us some play space.
    How would you approach this?

    1. That’s a tough one! Is this park your only option?

  3. Thank you so much, I have been actively looking for an article on this subject for a while now. My son just turned two a few weeks ago and is really tall for his age. He has been very physical and rough for the last few months around any other children, even though he seems very excited initially to see other kids and to play. The hard part is he also reacts very physically to me when I intervene. He hit another child recently and the mother got down in his face and yelled “hey!” at him. I’ve just been at a total loss!

  4. Courtney Banas says:

    Thank you for mentioning how all of these are normal behaviors. I need to remind myself to trust my child. He is the “passive one” on the playground, and always pulling me to play with him. I have a feeling I have conditioned him to want me with him, because I have always been a very hands on parent, I love playing with him (I play with kids for a living as a therapist) so it’s very hard for me to sit back when I just love engaging with him. I will try your suggestion to stay back and invite him to stay with me if he wants. My question is about a play date we had today on the playground with 5 or so peers from his nursery school. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but he didn’t want to leave my side. His teachers have told me that every time they go to the gym, he sits on the side and watches, sometimes even talking to himself like he’s narrating what’s happening. They said every so often he’ll go down the slide or ride a bike but will go right back to the side line. I thought this would change with time, but after a whole school year (2 mornings a week) , he continued to act the same way. My worry is why hasn’t he figured out how to join in their play yet, or want to. He’s plays wonderfully with his cousins that are his age. Do I need to bolster his self confidence? I thought we had developed a pretty secure attachment but it’s just discouraging when all the other kids are playing just fine and he won’t.

    Thank you for your time.

  5. Do you have any advice for parents with toddlers who aren’t walking yet? My son has gotten used to me “walking” him around playgrounds, because I don’t know if he should be crawling on asphalt, wood chips, etc., but I feel like I’m interfering with him exploring by himself. There’s not a soft play area convenient to my home.

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