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My almost-four year old boy has been expressing concerns recently that some of his close friends don't want to be his friend any more. While I'm aware this sort of drama is perpetual in childhood, I think he has some specific concerns that we need to help him address.

1. Being Pushy

He's a very pushy child. I don't think most children his age have a fully developed sense of empathy1, and most are still fundamentally selfish, but he's definitely more pushy than most other children his age. He tells other children how to play, and complains when they're not doing it right. He wants to play with a certain toy and gets very mad when someone else is playing with it. Occasionally he'll grab toys from others, although we've mostly worked that out (or age has).

There are a few other children who are probably innately as pushy as my son, except for one thing: he's quite big. He's 42" or maybe a bit taller now, which puts him for a 4 year old in the 95th percentile. This means that he's physically able to dominate the other children around him that are his age, and it also seems to give him the confidence to do so. If he wants to take a toy he can do it. He's faster than most of them, he's stronger than most of them. 2

2. Being selfish

In addition to being pushy, he's definitely still quite selfish. We set up a playdate the other day, and he liked the idea, but he also said that he didn't want [friend] to play with his trains. (He has maybe a hundred wooden trains.) I tried to talk about it more, and he just didn't seem to get that his friend would want to play with trains and it would be rude not to let him. I tried my usual tactic - asking how he'd feel if he was at his friend's house and couldn't play with any of his toys - but it didn't seem to get through. When the playdate did occur, the friend basically parallel played with my 2 year old's toys (who was at daycare).

The Question

All of this adds up to the fact that the selfishness and pushiness means he doesn't completely understand why his playmates don't want to be friends with him. He's noticeably sad about it - enough so to tell me, out of the blue, that he was sad about it - but he doesn't really get how to fix it.

How can I help him fix it? What can I do to help him understand what he needs to do to be a better friend?


1As a side note, this is the same preschooler from this question, and we've worked on it some in manners similar to what @anongoodnurse suggests. That's seemed to help, so it's possible more of that is what's needed.

2 Playing with older children seems to change this dynamic dramatically, which is part of why I think his size matters (though it's not the only difference, of course). He plays very well at the park when he finds a random five-to-six year old (in particular, a girl) to play with, and will clearly limit his pushiness and usually follow the child around to some extent. Some of this could well be emotional maturity - either the ability to cope with pushiness, or the knowledge of how to overcome it.

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    Sorry for the length, I seem incapable of writing fewer than five hundred words at a time... – Joe Jun 4 '15 at 22:20
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Your awareness of the problem is key.

There is a whole lot you can do. (Which won't change his fundamental nature, but which can nevertheless be helpful.)

Here are some things you can try (these are based on things I tried that worked well with my older son at that age, who was a bit too intense and could sometimes be hard for his peers to take).

  • When you're playing with stuffed animals or playmobile characters, you can do a little soap opera and set up some interpersonal problem. You can manipulate the animal that's in the role your child's potential friend might be in, so you can act out and articulate how that other animal might be feeling.

  • Try to find something you can praise in your child's behavior.

  • (This one is best for slightly older children, but I'll share it anyway.) Tell another adult, in hearing of your child, about something that happened to you recently, for example, you weren't very nice to a friend of yours, and you aren't sure s/he still wants to be friends with you, and that you feel sad. This normalizes what's going on with your child, so he doesn't feel alone.

  • Invite a reasonably easy-going child over to play, that your child is into. Invite your child to take the personal items that he doesn't want to share out of circulation before the visit. If necessary, put the non-sharable items in one room that will have the door closed. Get your child on board before the play date about that door staying closed, so that Friend doesn't feel tempted to go in and start nosing around. If most of the toys end up in the non-sharing room, don't despair, the number of non-sharable items will decrease as your child becomes less nervous about these playdates.

  • Buy two identical, or almost identical, toys of the 5 and dime type, and give one to your child and one to his friend to play with during the play date. His friend will take his home with him after the visit.

  • Start with short visits and work your way up.

  • Set them up for some water play, for example standing on stools, one in each of a double kitchen sink.

  • Unplug the phone during the visit, and be very available and involved. As your child gets more comfortable with playing with friends, you'll be able to have less direct involvement.

  • Model for your child the target behavior if he starts to do something rude. For example, if the visitor's name is Curtis, you can bar your son from grabbing something Curtis is holding, and say, "Curtis, may I have a turn with the gorilla figure?" Or, "Curtis, let's switch. I want the gorilla. Here, do you want the giraffe?" Teach your child non-bossy phrases like "Curtis, how about if we ... (e.g. go outside now)."

  • Take some photographs of the two children enjoying something together. Put the photographs in a small album, and write simple captions. Read this book about himself with him. This will help engrain the good experiences he has had with a friend and will help him want more of that!

  • Collect a box of cheap percussion instruments. Put on some children's music from the library and have a parade around the living room making percussion sounds to the beat of the music. Let the children change instruments as often as they like. If your child starts to snatch something from Curtis, remind him to offer something in exchange for the coveted item.

  • If your child starts to be overbearing, get down on their level (I mean physically -- squatting, sitting or kneeling) and model the desired behavior.

  • Allow each of them plenty of chances to choose things, for example, "Joe Jr, would you like cheese or peanut butter for lunch? Curtis, would you like milk or water to drink?" When your child is a little older, you can guide him in playing the host, for example, "Joe Jr., could you please ask Curtis what he'd rather have to drink, water or milk?"

  • End the playdate before the level of enjoyment starts to go down.

  • If he goes to pre-school, or later when he goes to school, make sure the school is aware of the problem; if they have a good social worker, meet with her (feminine used here for simplicity) and see if she'll work with him on his social skills.

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