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Ask Teacher Lisa: Maintaining Family Boundaries

Dear Teacher Lisa,

My three-year-old and I are good friends with another three-year-old and mom. We have spent a lot of time together over the past year, but lately I am having a harder and harder time enjoying our adventures together in public settings. It seems that we moms have different limits for our kids, and I find my child trying to copy behaviors or impress this friend with behaviors that are too dangerous for me or go beyond my personal parenting limits. While I understand why my friend may have different limits for her child, I’m frustrated and feel like I’m losing control…yet this friendship is very special to me. How do I maintain my family’s boundaries without offending my friend, and pulling my hair out when our kids are together??

                                                                                    Sincerely,

                                                                                    Mama Losing Patience

Dear Mama Losing Patience,

It’s normal that each family will have their own family values and limits. It can be tough trying to navigate this social territory in a way that both creates consistency for your child and is flexible enough that you can enjoy the company of others and appreciate their unique style and flow.

Here are some suggestions: 

1) Take a break.
It sounds like you are a bit triggered at the moment by your friend’s child’s behavior, the behavior it is inspiring in your child, and your mom friend’s responses. It might be best to take a break from hanging out so frequently, or make it a regular time and place that you can control a little better and some place you feel more comfortable with the parameters and limits. Take a step back and think about how often you typically get together? Do you have a regular weekly time or is it more frequent and spontaneous? You may want to opt for less frequent and more consciously scheduled playdates when you know everyone will be well rested and in good spirits. 

2) Make a plan.
For the time being, you may want to set up a specific plan for the playdate in advance. For example, you tell your friend you are inviting their child over for a cooking project and then supervise them as they do so, put out some art materials in the backyard while it is baking, eat the finished product, and then call it a day. This doesn’t have to be the exact plan of course, but the idea is to curate more of an activity that you think might be successful and acceptable to you, and the timeframe that you think would work best (i.e. 2-3:30pm). Keep things shorter and sweeter and more organized. Control more variables.

3) Know your triggers.
If you are going on an outing with these friends, you may want to avoid locations where you know you will get triggered (like a museum, restaurant, or a place where certain behaviors are expected and you would like your child to follow the unspoken rules). Instead, go somewhere like a nature trail or a wide open park where the kids can feel free to be wild, and if your child wants to try something challenging, instead of feeling badly about it, you might be excited instead! Also, make yourself available to support the risky play. Pack light in a backpack so your hands are free to help spot rock jumping or other spontaneous nature exploration.

4) Limit testing and setting expectations.
It sounds like your friend’s child (and possibly your own child) may be going through some developmental testing of limits right now. I find it easiest to set an expectation with children in advance and explain it (for example, you won’t be able to touch the animals at the zoo, or shout at the library, and explain why). Maybe while you are all in the car with seatbelts on, you talk about, “Okay, when we get out, we are going to be crossing a busy street. I need both of you to hold my hands so we can be safe. Everyone got it?” and wait for their affirmation before unbuckling. It’s much harder in the moment when kids are excited to redirect them, but it can be a little easier if you have already set the ground rules and then it is just a quick reminder, “Oh, remember, we all have to hold hands because this is a super busy street!” 

5) Pick your battles.
You might be able to reflect on some things and ask yourself, “Is this really a big deal?” and others you might think, “This is really important to me and my family values/my child’s safety.” It’s hard for a child full of enthusiasm and energy (and possibly developing new skills and interests) to be constantly restricted and directed, but if you choose the things that are most important to you or definite safety hazards and you are consistent about holding the line on those, you might have more success. 

6) Communicate respectfully.
If it’s really bothering you, you could have a talk with your friend in a moment when you are feeling calm and rested. “Hey, I was wondering if we could brainstorm…I feel like I’m losing control of our two munchkins lately when we are out. Do you ever feel that way? What type of scenario do you think would work best? Because I really value our friendship and want to spend time with you, but I’m going a little coo-coo managing our crazy 3-year-olds!” And maybe the two of you could put heads together to discuss which limits are non-negotiable, and come up with a time, place and activity that would best meet everyone’s needs, so you still get to hang out and feel connected, but with a little less stress. Afterwards, you could plan to debrief about how it went and any adjustments to the plan.Hope this helps! Friendship is messy and challenges us to stretch in ways we could never have imagined, but if we stick with it, it gives both the children and us parents opportunities to learn, grow and have fun!

Sincerely,

Teacher Lisa

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