Problems With Other People’s Children

As conscious parents, we’re doing our best to learn to anticipate and respond effectively to our children’s behaviors and needs. However, the behaviors of the other children in our kids’ lives—friends, relatives, new acquaintances in public environments—are far less predictable. It’s inevitable our kids will encounter situations that confuse, baffle, or even frighten them. So, what do we do when our kids are faced with these new and uncomfortable situations? And what is the best way to interact gracefully and helpfully with parents who aren’t on the same page?

Janet shares 3 notes from parents whose kids have experienced unpleasant interactions with other children. The parents’ instinct was to step in, but they were uncertain how to do that without offending the other parents. Janet explains her perspective and specific advice for handling each of these encounters.

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Transcript of “Problems with Other People’s Children”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be addressing three notes that I received. I always seem to get things in threes. These are all on the topic of other people’s kids.

We’re working really hard, a lot of us, on how to engage with our own children, how to help them with their behavior, how to teach them right from wrong. But what happens if we’re dealing with other children who are maybe not being safe with our child, not respecting their boundaries? And then we also have the other children’s parents. What are they doing? How are they handling it? How do we navigate this? So, it’s a big topic, but I’m going to use these three notes from very mindful parents to offer general guidelines and also some specifics to help us in these social situations.

Okay, so first I want to talk about what can get in our way of responding in a manner that’s the most helpful and productive in terms of what our children are learning, even what other children are learning. Oftentimes, I’ll hear from parents that are making this really challenging transition to a respectful, thoughtful approach from being raised in a very different way. So they could be breaking generational cycles, learning something that maybe doesn’t come as naturally to them, that they’re not as confident about, but that they really, really want. And sometimes we can be in that position and we either overreact or under-react. Overreacting—and parents have expressed to me that they feel they have a right to do this, and they certainly do. To come into these situations fiercely protective of their child, so angry at that other child, raising their voice, scolding them.

And while that happens—and it certainly does make sense and there’s nothing wrong with us for feeling that way—we’re not helping either child in that situation. Instead, we’re adding more fear into a situation where our child is already a little afraid or trying to process something that just happened. And we’re coming in in this scary way, Yikes, this was really, really scary, what happened here. So scary that my parent is having a strong emotional reaction. I can’t handle this. It is scary to be out with other children or to be engaging with this particular friend. I’m not safe. And then that other child, if that other child is the one who’s hurt our child, we’re not helping them either. Their behavior’s coming from discomfort already and now we’re adding a lot more. So we’re not helping that child in the moment or the next time. Because this impulse will come up for them again, especially because of the way that we reacted. So, that’s the one extreme direction that we can go.

The other one I often hear about from parents who, they don’t want to be that overreacting person, but they’re not sure how to go into the situation with confidence. And so they don’t intervene and they kind of let it go. Then their child is getting hurt, getting hit, showing that they’re not able to defend their boundaries themselves. And the parent is feeling too tentative to be able to intervene in a protective but calm manner. All of that is understandable as well.

The goal that we want is to find that just-right intervention that offers the most positive, empowering messages to both children. That feels safe to them, so they’re in an emotional space where they can be receptive, where they can learn positive things, like that I have a right to boundaries and how to express my boundaries. And for that other child, that people are actually out there looking out for me when I need help with boundaries, when I need help stopping these impulses that I have. And they’re not mad at me about it, they’re not judging me. Which is the only way we really can help. As soon as we’re judging a child, they can’t receive that as help. They receive it as just more evidence that they’re bad, that they’re not okay, and that they’re kind of alone in this.

So, how do we get ourselves to that just-right frame of mind? We get it with clarifying our perspective. And in this case, the perspective that I recommend working on is letting go of what we don’t control, completely, which is going to be those other adults’ reactions. We have no power to control that, and there’s actually a lot of good reasons not to. We’re raising our children not to be in a bubble, but to adapt to the world around them. Which children will naturally do, they’ll naturally want to do. And we can be there as supporters and guides in this journey, but they are going to get exposed to, and they’re supposed to get exposed to, all different kinds of reactions to their behavior and to other children’s behavior. Maybe that even comes from relatives. Maybe one of two parents reacts differently, and maybe not ideally.

But children really only need one person who is in their corner. Still seeing them clearly, but not judging them, understanding that they’re going to show every different kind of behavior. They don’t need the whole world and everybody else in it to act the same way. Even if people are using terms for them or for their child who’s acting out with them, maybe they’re using terms like naughty or bad or yelling at their child or yelling at your child. Obviously that’s not ideal, but that’s life.

And we’re there, one step behind them, in terms of the way that they’re processing what they’re learning, so we can reflect with them later, taking our cues from our child. Did something happen there that was mystifying to my child? I see that expression on their face. Then I could ask them, maybe afterwards, Did that seem different to you, what that parent was doing? Or, You noticed that that child was behaving this certain way, and what do you think that was about? How did that feel to you?

Okay, so now instead of me going on and on in this general way, I think it will work better for me to use these questions to explain what I’m talking about:

Hi, Janet. I know this question may not be what you normally talk about, but it’s been something that is coming up a lot lately for me. How do I deal with other children misbehaving? Sometimes parents don’t step in when I would expect they would, and it leaves me feeling uncomfortable and unsure how to handle it.

A while back ago, we had friends and their kids over. Their kids were very physically aggressive, and my kids had been hit and pushed several times. The mom would lightly address it, but it kept happening. Then he started being destructive and hitting furniture and other things with a toy. They just laughed it off. But I ended up asking him not to, and things got awkward and uncomfortable. Is there a way to politely handle a situation when the parents don’t? By the time I end up saying something, I know my emotions are feeling tight, and even though I try to keep it out of my voice, people can sense it.

Okay, so when we get to that point where our emotions are feeling tight, that can happen with our own children too, right? And the reason that happens is because we’re letting something go. We’re not stepping in right away, as early as we can, to put a stop to things. We’re expecting other people to work it out. In this case, other parents or, in the case of us with our child, we’re expecting them to just follow our directions. You know, when we say stop, we expect that they should stop. But oftentimes they can’t.

So in these cases with other children, when you see the energy of this other child or other children, then unfortunately the children need us to not be sitting back just talking to the parents and hanging out and pretending everything’s fine. And then of course, knowing that it isn’t, we get worked up, and then we come in with the less helpful kind of energy. And we feel really frustrated because we’ve let things go and why aren’t these parents doing what I want them to do? Other parents usually won’t feel judged or that there’s something wrong with you, if you come in non-judgmentally, early to the situation. You see this going on, like, Ah, yeah, you guys want to, oh, nope, that could hurt him. I know you don’t want to do that, so I’m going to stop you. And while I’m saying this, I’m just calmly kind of buddy-guarding, hanging near the children, so I can stop them. Maybe I don’t always get there before something happens, but I’m there pretty soon after. And I have my hands up to stop them, even if I have to kind of hold their bodies a little bit. I’m doing it with respect. I’m doing it with calmness.

The key to coming in with confidence is being there, being close enough and ready so that we can help and not get caught on our heels. So when we see, as this parent does, that sometimes parents don’t step in when I would expect they would, that’s okay if they don’t step in, I’m going to step in. But I’m not going to step in in a way that should anger those other parents or embarrass them. No one wants their children to be hurting another child. That would be odd. I doubt you would be friends with people who really didn’t care. Maybe they just are afraid to step in, or they don’t know how to do it in a calm way. Or maybe they believe they’re respecting when they’re actually not really seeing their children clearly, not helping them.

So when other people aren’t helping, be the hero. Be the one who helps, way before you get to the point of being angry and annoyed. Yeah, it’s reasonable to have the expectation that other parents would care and stop their child. But there are a lot of reasons why parents haven’t gotten to that yet, and we have no control over that. But we do have control over our behavior in the moment and what goes on in our house and what goes on with our child. And that’s where I would be protective. So not storming in angrily, but, You know, this is a little rough today. So I’m here. Ooh, no, no, no. Yeah, I can’t let you use those toys that way. That’s not safe when you throw them like that. I’m there. I’m not just talking. I’m in there, acting as if I can handle all of this.

And it’s amazing how that translates to children. If we really believe we’re being heroic here, we’re being the great model. Even for the other parents, because we’re sincerely helping that child who is struggling with boundaries. And maybe this is why they’re doing this in front of you. It’s almost an unconscious, Hey, people aren’t helping me with this. Maybe you can? Obviously that’s not a conscious process of thought, but that’s part of the impulse. Like, Help! Somebody help me! Look what I’m doing now. I’m out of control. I don’t want to be this person that’s doing this. So stepping into that role will feel –when you get used to it and you can own it– feel really, really good. And if people are put off by that, honestly, there’s something wrong with them. Because you’re being kind to their child. You’re not mad at or finger-pointing, you’re helping.

I had a live event a few years ago collaborating with this wonderful educator, one of my favorites, for this very enthusiastic and engaged group of parents. And one of them asked what to do about their four-year-old who had this friend of his, this little boy would come over and the little boy would want to wrestle and want to do things physically that their boy was saying no to. But he was going along with it because the other child wasn’t listening to him and kept going.

And so the person I was collaborating with on the stage, they had a different opinion, which is fine too. I’m sure a lot of you out there have very different opinions from mine. In this case, the person I was on stage with said, Let them work it out. That’ll be really good for your child. You know, boys play like that sometimes.

While I totally could see that point of view, I have a very different perspective, which is that this child is showing they’re struggling with boundaries. Both children are actually showing that, but especially this child who is not listening to my son. He needs help. And I believe he’s asking for it here in this house, and I want to be the one that gives it to him. So I would go in and say, with my hand there, I’m going to stop you. It sounds like you’re saying you don’t want that. You’re telling him. Yeah. So he’s saying he doesn’t want that, so I’m going to stop you there. I wouldn’t redirect them to something else. I would allow them to have that moment. And then on their own—and I’ve seen this happen hundreds of times with children—on their own, they come up with another way to play. I don’t have to do that for them. All I have to do is help them with the boundary. It is really hard with your peers. You want to go along with them, right? You feel like, Oh, maybe there’s something wrong with me. I should be okay with this. Sometimes children do need a helping hand, and when we’re there to offer it, I would see that as a primetime parenting opportunity.

Okay, here’s another note I received:

It might be interesting to do a post or include in a future podcast what to do when your child is the one who is hit, shoved by another kid. I have been in a few situations now with other kids and their parents present where a toddler shoves or hits my toddler, two and a half. It is very hard to navigate because most parents instantly demand their child stand in front of mine and apologize. That’s their first response.

My kid is usually just sort of stunned and I get in there with him to softly say, “It’s not okay for someone to hit you or hurt you. How do you feel?” I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say to him, but this feels important. I also try to make it broad and not about that particular child because I don’t want to harm their relationship and I’m sure they can get through this. But it’s very uncomfortable saying that in front of the other parents, who always seem embarrassed. Then they immediately jump to the forced apology. I can’t control them and I don’t want to undermine or question them in front of their kids. But I also don’t appreciate the example being made in front of my kid, their friend forced to stand there in front of them and say something that only makes them feel worse.

Once with a mom friend, I awkwardly blurted out, “If my kid had pushed your kid, I would not expect him to say sorry. We would just talk about what happened. So, no pressure.” They just stared at me stunned. Maybe an entire podcast on navigating parenting differences on the playground?

Okay, so yeah, I totally agree with what this parent says about “I can’t control them and I don’t want to undermine or question them in front of their kids” when they’re forcing the apologies. So yeah, that’s that letting go. People certainly have a right to do things their own way, the way they think is best.

Where I see things a little differently than this parent writing to me is that I don’t believe this will hurt her child at all. Yeah, it’s not an example of what this parent would do, but it’s a fine example out there of what people are doing. And I mean, the whole purpose of our guidance for them is for them to be exposed gradually to the rest of the world. And this is a common way that parents react, into that apology. Because they feel that that’s the right thing to do. All of this is very well-intentioned, right?

But what we know about children is that they process things more slowly than we do. And even we, as adults, when we do something that hurts someone’s feelings or we do something wrong, we’re not always able to snap into an apology. Especially if we feel people jumping on us around what we did. We don’t have that kind of emotional comfort space that we need to be vulnerable, which is what an apology, a true apology, comes from. That vulnerability, that openness, looking at it and saying, Ooh, I’m sorry I did that. That’s not going to just come trippingly off the tongue immediately.

Yet we expect this from children, because a lot of us feel like what people see in our children is going to reflect on us. And so we want them to be better than we are, right? A lot of the time, maybe. But that impulse is actually not going to get us the result that we want. It’s going to make our children feel more distanced from us, less inclined to want to genuinely go to that vulnerable place where apologies come from. It’s going to make them feel like they aren’t trusted, that they can’t really navigate this. That they have our judgment more than they have the support that they need. So I agree with this parent, that’s not an ideal situation for those children to have to do that.

And yeah, we can’t always be there ahead of time to stop the hitting or shoving. That’s not going to be possible. Once we see a child going to that place once, then we can be close by because now we’ve gotten a clue that this child is not managing the situation easily. And we can be there for them, to help. So she says, “My kid is usually just sort of stunned.” Yes. And it’s not even stunned in a scary way. They’re not usually traumatized by it in any way. It’s just Ooh, what just happened? What was that about?

So in that moment of processing, what do they need from us there? They need us to be ready to block so it doesn’t happen again. So, physically there. Ideally calmly there, with confidence that this isn’t going to terrify our child. If we’re terrified or if we’re emotional, then that’s when it gets scarier for them. But on its own, it’s just a puzzling moment, right? And yeah, we want to make sure they’re okay. Usually we can look at them and see, but we might say like, Ooh, did that hurt? Yeah. Are you all right? But try to be careful not to turn this into that I see my child is this sad victim here or something, which can be a projection that we have that’s similar to that projection of being angry at the other child. It’s that mother bear or father bear in us, fiercely protective. But the best way to protect isn’t to let that bear out of us. It’s more protective in a helpful way to be calm, to wait, to really check out our child. Rather than trying to console them or fix something that may not even need fixing. So staying open to, What did they think? And you know, just checking both children out.

And then with the parents doing the apology thing, I would still stay there with my child. Breathing, exhaling. I don’t think it feels worse to our child to have a child do a very likely false type of apology. They’re probably just still in that processing Ooh, what’s going on here? mode. It’s safe for them to be there. And if our child brings it up later, or if we notice them thinking about it, then after the fact, when those children have moved away, that’s when I would say, Wow, their parent really wanted them to say sorry. They really wanted them to say those words to you. Just reflecting what happened, not deciding that this was the right or wrong thing to do. Knowing that the way we are with our child is what has influence on how they feel about themselves, how they feel about the way they’re navigating in the world. It’s always going to take precedence over what other people do. I would love to encourage parents to feel secure in that knowledge, that they do have a lot of power here. And the more we can trust children to navigate with our support, but not trying to direct their thinking, the better.

Okay, so here’s one more:

Hi, Janet. Thanks for all the work you do to help us be better parents.

Our girls are four and six years old and love to get out in town and do fun things. Two weekends in a row, we came across nearly the same challenging situation. Both times we were at a play maze, the kind of maze that is several stories tall and the kids climb through. There are different obstacles and there are slides within it, as well as slides exiting it. They are so happy that they can finally independently go through it and explore and have fun. Usually parents are at the base of the maze unless their kid gets stuck up in the maze and the parent has to go up to rescue them.

Both times we went through –totally different mazes and weekends– my girls encountered a child in the maze who was behaving aggressively towards them. The children (I’m grouping them together now for simplicity), who both times were actually younger than them, pushed them down the slide, reportedly had their hands on their neck, were grabbing onto them without letting go, ramming into them with a cushion block, etc. My girls came down in tears once and came down immediately the next time and reported back to me. But it was already after the fact.

What do we teach them to do when they’re alone, like up in the maze, and a kid is acting aggressively towards them? They came and reported it to us, and we told them to stay with us, but we weren’t sure how they should handle it in the moment. Of course, both times the parents of the children were oblivious to what their child was doing.

Thanks in advance.

Okay, so this sentence stuck out to me: “They’re so happy that they can finally independently go through it and explore and have fun.” So each of these steps to independence, each of these ways that we as parents let go a little to let our child experience more of the world on their own terms. Which, again, this process of development is what our job is all about. My mentor Magda Gerber used to say, “Parenting, it’s this process of letting go. We let go. We let go a little more and a little more, as our child gets to stretch their wings.” So this is a positive experience for these children to have, right?

And unfortunately, they came across some pretty concerning behavior from another child. There’s no way of knowing all the reasons that children would behave like that. But oftentimes it’s about the dynamic and the relationship they have with their parents that they’re taking out on other children. Or they just feel out of control.

So what do we do? How do we help our children when they’re facing those situations? Well, these girls did the absolutely perfect thing. They told their parents right away. And, I mean, this is one of the reasons we never want to judge a child for “tattling,” which is really just reporting. But that can be a trigger for us sometimes, that a child is a tattletale. Maybe we were teased for being a tattletale or that we see that in a negative light. Rather than a communication, I trust my parent. I want to let you know what’s going on with me, that we’ve got to hope is going to last us through our child’s adolescence and teen years and early adulthood and for life, right? That they feel safe to tell us all the things, that we’re not going to say, Oh, don’t be a tattle. Don’t say that stuff.

So anyway, obviously this parent hasn’t done that and the children did the perfect thing, and is there anything else they could do? Well, the second time it happened, she says they came down immediately. Brilliant, right? So they are taking care of themselves. Yes, unfortunately they’re learning these hard lessons that every child isn’t kind, children aren’t always safe to be around, other people aren’t always safe to be around. And when we don’t feel safe, we exit the situation and we report to our parents, to help someone help that child so that it doesn’t keep happening.

This mom says, “Of course, both times the parents of the children were oblivious to what their child was doing.” Well, I hope they were told, and hopefully not judgmentally, just, Oh gosh, this is what your child is doing in there. I’m sure you want to know they’re not being safe inside the maze and they’re upsetting other kids. So if we can do that in a way that isn’t shaming of the parent. Studies actually show that, when you see parents that are being harsh with their kids, maybe physically punishing them, the parent’s dysregulated, shaming their child. We see parents doing these scary things and we want to run in there and save that child, right? What that actually does is it makes the parent feel worse. And then that means the parent is more likely to take out those feelings with that child later, because now we’ve shamed them. So, shaming doesn’t help a child, it doesn’t help a parent, it doesn’t help anybody. And as much as that might be a healthy impulse when we’re angry, that’s not what we want to aim for, if we really want to be a positive force and a positive model for our children.

So the ideal response to those parents that are obviously overwhelmed and not at their best with their child, the ideal is to go up at most and say, Can I give you a hand here? Can I help you with these groceries? Do you want me to help take your child’s hand so we can get you to the car? Help. And in the case of the parents whose children were acting out in the maze, yeah, if we could communicate this is going on, even with empathy, to that parent, that has the best chance of being received in a way that they can help their child and therefore other children like yours as well.

So I know all of this maybe sounds really idealistic and goody-two-shoes and, Oh gosh, you know, what is she expecting? We’re not going to have feelings about these things? And I understand that, and that’s not what I’m expecting. But I’m offering a framework that will not only help you navigate these situations individually, but give your child all those lessons that I know you want them to have. That they’re safe, that independence is this balance of joy and also sometimes scary. It’s a risk that we’re taking, even to interact with another child. But it’s one that they can handle, with our support.

So I thank all these parents for sharing with me. Just know that, yeah, step-by-step, building confidence each time, one step forward, two steps back, forgiving yourselves for being human.

We can do this.


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