As the Preschool Turns
October 11, 2017 11:34 AM   Subscribe

My preschooler (3.5) has a freind she has known her whole life. They started preschool together about a month ago. It's going ... weirdly. How do I navigate this? Or do I just let them figure it out? Snowflakes inside.

My 3.6 yo (let's call her Zoe) has a friend (let's call her Annie). They are about 2 months apart, Zoe being older. They've known each other since they were 2 and 4 months, respectively.

Annie is ... maybe a bit socially unaware? I'm reluctant to make judgments about actual issues, but she presents many of the traits typical of those on the autism spectrum. She doesn't make eye contact, she doesn't play with other children, she's obsessive, she doesn't read social cues, she shows very little emotion, etc. Annie has been very sheltered her whole life and infantilized (she still breastfeeds, she recently potty-trained but still wore pullups, she only has been allowed to do anything by herself in the last couple weeks (go to the bathroom, go get toys, etc.)). Annie's parents are either totally oblivious to these issues or they are unwilling to admit them. They often comment that Annie is "so much younger" or that "she's so much like us."

Zoe (my kid) doesn't seem to notice. She calls Annie her best friend and asks to play with her all the time. However, when other kids are present, Zoe will play with them while Annie usually plays alone or ask adults to play with her.

Zoe and Annie started preschool together. Due to some weird circumstances, Annie started three weeks before Zoe. When Zoe came to school, she was excited to be in class with her friend and has been sitting with Annie and playing ("playing") with her every day. I asked, and Annie's mom said Annie didn't really play with the other children before Zoe started.

This week, the teacher told me Annie was being very possessive of Zoe. She saved her a swing and refused to let other kids use it, even when Zoe chose not to, Annie physically shields Zoe from other kids and refuses to let them play with her. She gets very upset when Zoe doesn't sit beside her at circle.

I'm worried about:
1) I want Zoe to make other friends, for her own sake. She's a little reluctant about school to begin with, so I'd like her to branch out and enjoy her time. I've already scheduled a couple of playdates with other kids for next week.
2) I'm worried Annie is preventing Zoe from doing what she wants/needs.
3) I'm not sure the teachers will do much -- they already told me that it's normal behavior.
4) I don't know how to approach this with Annie's parents: they laughed it off and said that Annie "just loves Zoe!" Based on the history, I think it's more than that.

Do I intervene? And how?

Bonus worry: honestly, playdates are not that fun with Annie. The mom plays with her constantly and Zoe ends up getting bored (and so do I). But we are friends. The elephant int he room is just so overwhelming. How do I either get comfortable with it or alleviate this discomfort?

tl; dr
My kid has a possesive friend at school who seems like she may have some spectrum disorder behaviors. Parents are clueless. Do I intervene? And how?
posted by mrfuga0 to Human Relations (24 answers total)
It's hard for me to tell how much your daughter is actually bothered by any of this. You say playdates aren't fun, but also that your daughter actively asks to play together (I assume this means playdates?) and generally sounds excited to be in the same class together.

So, I would start with a conversation with your daughter asking how she feels about the whole situation and -- if she indicates that Annie's behavior is bothering her -- coach her on some ways to deal with it like "If Annie is blocking you from playing with another child, you can tell the teacher" or "If you're not interested in playing on the swings, it's okay to go play on the slide" or "It's okay if your friend gets upset, that happens sometimes. You can ask for help from your teacher if you don't know what to do." etc.

I would also talk to the teachers -- it sounds like they mostly think this is normal, but I'm assuming they won't force your child to sit in a particular spot during circle time just to avoid a temper tantrum from someone else? If that type of thing is indeed happening, I would talk to them about making sure to back Zoe up when she needs some space/is playing with other friends, and if they can't do that, consider switching preschools.

I would leave any diagnoses out of it. You don't actually know what the parents are/aren't doing, and it also sounds like the teachers (who see a much wider range of child behavior than you do) aren't overly concerned. In any case, even if Annie is on the autism spectrum, her treatment is not really your business and plenty of people with autism have friends! It's not as if knowing this diagnosis would be some indication of "Oh-oh! Now I know Zoe should never be friends with this person!" So, I would just focus on the behavior you can observe, and work with your daughter and her teachers to make sure that problematic behaviors (i.e. things that are actually bothering your daughter) are being dealt with.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:47 AM on October 11 [10 favorites]

Considering how sheltered Anne seems to be, she might only feel safe and familiar around Zoe in a scary and new environment, hence the possessiveness. Is Annie hitting/making fun of/or exhibiting other harmful behaviors towards Zoe? If not, I don't think there's anything to worry about. If Zoe feels bad about not playing with Annie exclusively, you can tell her it's ok to have other friends and still be friends with Zoe.

3) I'm not sure the teachers will do much -- they already told me that it's normal behavior.

Is there a reason not to trust their judgment?
posted by littlesq at 11:51 AM on October 11 [3 favorites]

Not to threadsit but: I definitely don't think any diagnosis is reason for my kid *not* to be friends with another kid. I only mention it as part of the ongoing obliviousness of the parents, which makes me worry they won't do much on their end to alleviate the possessiveness.
posted by mrfuga0 at 11:53 AM on October 11

The preschool can and should make recommendations to Annie's parents if that is warranted. They can and should also re-direct Annie in the moment when appropriate if they notice Annie being too much towards Zoe. I agree Annie just sounds scared and like Zoe is a "safe zone." Ask the teachers to help Annie and Zoe branch out a bit.


My son is 6. Nothing I worried about at 3.5 matters now. Seriously. They all catch up to each other, and 3.5 is super super younger than you realize.
posted by jbenben at 11:55 AM on October 11 [18 favorites]

This is such a new situation. The transition into school is hard on a lot of kids and can take well over a month to get normal. You will get to know other parents through birthday parties and probably other parent stuff, and through Zoe, and can arrange playdates with them to help Zoe branch out.

At this age, kids being possessive of friends is not unusual at all, especially when weathering a big transition, *especially* when they're a bit sheltered. If Annie is not being violent, and Zoe doesn't seem upset about the situation, I don't think you should worry.

It kinda seems to me that you just don't really enjoy spending time with Annie or her parents, and were hoping preschool would be a ticket out of the narrow social world you've inadvertently created for your kid. It probably will be, but it's going to take time. Don't rush it.
posted by potrzebie at 11:56 AM on October 11 [16 favorites]

This sounds like normal behavior to me for a 3 year old. Kids at that age are learning how to be friends. Being friends is hard! Being 3 means learning other people's boundaries, learning social cues, and learning that other people are other people with different wants and likes and dislikes. That's what preschool is for, too, is learning how to do that with others.

Even if Annie *has* "spectrum disorder behaviors" (some of your phrases really read icky and judgmental to me), she still deserves to have friends and learn how to be 3. I breastfed my kid to age 4 and I certainly don't feel that "infantilized" him. It was a source of comfort for him. I doubt the parents are "clueless". They may just not have talked to you at length about questions they've asked themselves and other professionals.

One of the things I am learning as a parent of a 4 year old is how to deal with other 4 year olds and other parents of 4 year olds. Because everyone parents differently and everyone's kids are different, too, and may require different parenting. And kids this age haven't learned yet to cover up their differences from "normal", and certainly don't yet know how to deal with anyone else's differences from "normal". And, I'm also speaking for myself here, I think parents are in the same place.
posted by jillithd at 11:57 AM on October 11 [21 favorites]

Maybe I‘m missing the obvious, but shouldn‘t you be talking to the pre-school teacher about your worries?
Ask them how they intend to prevent this from happening. Tell them that you would like them to keep an eye on the two and to intervene to make Annie give Zoe some space to develop other friendships. For instance, to stop Annie when she is blocking other kids from talking to Zoe.
A good pre school teacher will do this out of her own initiative and experience. The possessiveness problem is not that uncommon, they‘ll know how to deal with it.

What exactly do you expect Annie‘s parents to do when they‘re not even there when this stuff happens? With a 3,5year old you can‘t just explain beforehand that she needs to let Zoe play with others. At 3,5 that goes out of the window as soon as their little brains get overwhelmed by WANT TO PLAY WITH ZOE ALONE RIGHT NOW!!! Your only chance is to intervene and redirect as soon as the unacceptable behaviour happens. This is the teacher‘s job.

Lastly, your expectations of kid behaviour are a little out of whack. It‘s not indicative of a mental problem for 4 year olds to wear diapers or even have breastfeeding sessions. The rest of the stuff you describe may be problematic or may not. Either way, it‘s none of your business.

Finally: This will not be the only or even the most important friendship in Zoe‘s life. See Annie a little less (even if Zoe complains) and actively foster her other friendships. Invite any kids from preschool that sound nice to play dates at your home, have plenty of other families over. It‘s ok for you to dial back on a friendship you find draining and uncomfortable, even if your kid likes them. You are the person with the best opportunity to ensure Zoe experiences many kinds of friendships! Take heart! You have nothing to worry about.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:00 PM on October 11 [8 favorites]

Kids will work it out eventually and should. You could give your daughter some tips on navigating the new social situations she will encounter but the sooner they learn to handle them on their own, to see to their own wants and needs without hurting too many feelings, the better and more confident a kid they will be. If there is no violence, if your kid isn't coming home from school in tears most days, things are going to be fine.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:01 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]

Your first two worries sound like fairly healthy ones, but I would wait at least a month and see if the behavior continues before moving them from forward-looking concerns into actual hard worries you should say something to the teachers about again. Young kids - especially girls - do that sort of thing a lot, and they usually grow out of it, push back against it if it bothers them, or switch to a new friend and repeat the same dynamic (either until they get pushback, or until the next bestie comes along).

The other issues you describe (as they pertain to Annie's well-being) are just your outsider's views and since she's under 4 years old, I just don't think you have enough info about her or how she's being parented to make a judgement. If it's a good school, the teachers will be the ones who are trained and experienced in how to deal with it.

I wouldn't say anything to Annie's parents unless you see the behavior yourself when you're both in the room, AND it poses some sort of threat or Zoe is clearly disturbed by it in a way that demands intervention. Kids that age just aren't civilized yet. They generally figure it out.
posted by Mchelly at 12:01 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]

Maybe arrange playdates with other kids at the preschool? That way your daughter can become friends with her classmates and then at school she can decide who she wants to play with.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:15 PM on October 11 [4 favorites]

Just as you think it's weird that Annie's parents still let her wear pullups and nurse occasionally, people here are going to think it's weird that you are projecting adult friendship dynamics and social anxieties onto your toddler. It will all be fine.
posted by cakelite at 12:16 PM on October 11 [14 favorites]

Last threadsit because I feel this is getting taken the wrong way and is getting nasty. I breastfed until this summer. I understand the developmental ranges. That examples of the other child being infantalizef are taken from her mother telling me she knows that her child is past the stages but she just can't let go.
posted by mrfuga0 at 12:24 PM on October 11 [3 favorites]

I echo others that this is not a big deal. Welcome to the world of parenting social beings - Zoe is going to continue to have friends and friendships that involve all sorts of kids and their parents and you will have to roll with it. When they are babies you can pick their friends based on how much you enjoy the company of the parents. That is ending now. Moreover, they'll only be in this preschool for a year, maybe 2. Just wait until they're in "real" school and, as someone once put it, you and the other parents are stuck on this boat together for 6 (or more) years and you sort of just have to deal with each other.

Let the teachers take the lead. Check in with them to encourage all of the kids to play with a variety of other kids.

I think that it is pretty awesome that Zoe is sticking up for her friend. Maybe she realizes that the other kids don't like Annie (if that is what is going on?).

If Annie does have some developmental issues, leave that to her parents, their doctors, and the teachers. Teachers are experts in this age - they see a new batch every year. If something is up with Annie, they'll likely work with her on it and speak with the parents.

I think that it is good that you're working on playdates with other kids. Maybe think of other activities where Zoe will be with a variety of kids - music, dance, sports, art, whatever. I had a shy/anxious kid too and while he is still a little timid, working with him to get out of his comfort zone was essential.

But really, please don't stress about this. As a parent of an older child, I can confirm what jbenben said - almost nothing that I worried about with my 3 year old matters now.
posted by k8t at 12:26 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]

Our very well-socialized son started first grade at a new school at the age of 6. When we showed up the first day, we ran into a girl with whom our son attended pre-k at age 2. They were in the same first grade class...Yay!! As we parents caught up, we realized that our kids did not remember each other from years earlier. Despite the fact that they didn't remember each other, when they walked into the new classroom, they stayed very close to each other -- because they were the nearest thing they had to a comfort zone in a new place with all new people.They continued to be very bonded throughout the year but made other friends too.

Please do not stress about this. Very normal!
posted by murrey at 1:21 PM on October 11

I'm going to skip over a lot of the responses here and try to address your original question. I'm a clinical psychologist with a background as a teacher, so I'm answering from that perspective.

I totally get your concerns, they seem to make sense given what you've described. As a professional I'd tend to agree that Annie's behavior sets off some red flags for me, but that's not the most relevant part of this situation and you probably can't do much there anyway.

What I see from your question is that Zoe has recently started preschool, and her long-standing best friend Annie is at the same preschool. Annie seems quite eager to spend a lot of time with Zoe, and you're worried that this enthusiasm from Annie may make it difficult for Zoe to really integrate into the classroom and make friends with other kids. I think it's completely reasonable to talk to the teachers, express your concerns (obviously in a non-accusatory, collaborative way) and ask them to make a special effort to ensure that Zoe has opportunities to play with other kids. I'd take the focus off of Annie, and instead just express that you'd like the teachers to help Zoe integrate with different kids.
posted by scalar_implicature at 1:43 PM on October 11 [21 favorites]

I'm not sure the teachers will do much -- they already told me that it's normal behavior.

Trust the daycare teachers, honestly they see a spectrum of child behaviour with more clarity and diversity than you do. Also you don't state how long it's been? A week is pretty different from if it's been three months.

I think it's great that you are being a proactive and engaged parent. That said, I think it's kinda interesting that you ding Annie's parents for doing everything for her; have you considered that maybe you are trying to be too 'hands on' with your own daughter's socialisation? Is Zoe your first kid by any chance?

Give the kids some time for figure it out themselves, and trust the teachers to step in and manage behaviour when and where needed. Let's be honest; 3 year olds are really only one rung above wild animals, we can't and shouldn't put too many expectations on them. Their little brains are getting inundated with skads of new information every day and growing, adapting, changing as a result of that. Things that worry you now may be almost forgotten in three months.

Finally, despite your denials, there seems to be some anxiety about the whole autism thing in your post. Speculating about autism is not super edifying, really, and - unless you are qualified - you honestly have no idea about autism diagnosis, autism itself, or the range of developmental milestones and behaviours that are within winows etc - regardless of what books and websites say. I'm sorry, there's a kind of undertone to some of your fears that elements of autism are infectious or something, and hanging out with Annie will harm Zoe and make her display some possible aspects of autistic behaviour etc.

I would actually argue the opposite: Zoe learning to socialise, play and co-operate with others who are different - whether that difference is cultural, behavioral, racial, neuro-atypical etc - is a skill, and a value, that will serve her well all her life. It's something to be championed and you should be proud of her for it.

Tl;dr - kids are more adaptable and resilient than you think. Give it some time and see if there are any actual problems before doing anything. If you don't like playdates, you don't have to attend them for your kid.

Best of luck.
posted by smoke at 2:31 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]

I would tell the preschool teacher that it might be "normal" but it's not okay with you. You want your kid to branch out socially, it's not too much to ask that they keep another kid from monopolizing her.

It's 100% reasonable to ask preschool teachers to gently redirect Zoe when she's preventing your child from socializing with other kids. That's about your kid, not about Zoe.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 2:37 PM on October 11

Also, I'm hearing that a big part of this is you feeling like you (and Annie) are already shouldering a lot of the burden of this friendship, and you're having a hard time drawing appropriate boundaries.

I would say to that: if the parents are on the spectrum, the "just be nice and suck it up" approach is not going to change their behavior, nor is it actually a kindness in the long term, because you will get fed up and disappear and they won't know why. Instead, in order to be a good friend to them, you might have to be more blunt with them than you'd otherwise be comfortable being and proactively set boundaries to make your time together enjoyable for you.

To do this in a kind way, don't focus on the past, but the near-future and present. Set concrete and explicit expectations for the future and then reinforce them in the moment. Example: "Next playdate can you play with Zoe less? Annie gets bored when you mostly play with each other." and then "Hey [friend], let's let the kids play with each other a little more like we talked about."
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 2:42 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]

Let me just start by saying- it is hard as a parent to navigate these situations. It is one thing to let your kiddos figure things out on their own, but when you have a relationship with the parent, that adds an element that is difficult to navigate. My daughter is 19 now, and I have a friend whose daughter was displayed full on bullying behavior towards my daughter- in ways that are still shocking to me 15+ years later, equally shocking was the way the my friend laughed them off. I did have to reach out to the teachers for help, because I could not navigate the situation with my friend in a way that was constructive. I was full on MAMABEAR about my daughter and what I felt like was her preschool experience being hindered. Preschool teachers can totally tell you what is developmentally appropriate, and they can push back on you armed with that data- it is still early in the school year to push for extreme interference, but as much as possible, you should be advocating for you child. If the school isn't responsive to your concerns about your child (and as pp have said, work to speak in terms that focus on your child, leaving the other one and any issues you might see out of the convo). Hang in there- this is just the begining of you having to advocate for your child.
posted by momochan at 2:44 PM on October 11

I've seen this happen quite a few times. It is developmently appropriate behavior, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't be concerned. The "helping Annie integrate" language is perfect, and I would also proactively schedule play dates with other kids. When you are having play dates with her, check in with your daughter and model some simple age-appropriate boundary setting. For what it's worth, I wound up asking the teachers to separate the kids for a year, and now at 6 things have resolved themselves.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:47 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]

Based on your description, I would say this is an Annie issue, not a Zoe issue. Voice your concerns to the teacher that Zoe not be prevented from playing with other kids if that is what she chooses to do. The teachers should be keeping an eye on all of the kids and addressing any behavior where boundaries are not being respected.

Don't say anything to Annie's parents. If there is a specific incident, bring it to the attention of the teachers or the director. The teachers should be addressing the parents at drop off or pick up, it shouldn't really be something that is addressed between the parents unless it happens on your personal time together at a playdate or a birthday party.

Unless you are a specialist in the field of autism, I wouldn't armchair that diagnosis with a ten-foot-pole. Unless you no longer want to be friends with these people. Even if you're right, they don't want to hear it from you.
posted by vignettist at 8:15 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]

I honestly don't think it's inappropriate to mention to the teachers your concerns regarding Annie. If someone had not suggested to me that I get my son assessed, it would have taken much longer to get his ASD diagnosis, simply because as a first time parent and not a professional in the field, I had no idea how the symptoms could present. And it was not my daycare provider who suggested it, because despite her many years of experience in the field of childcare, she did not recognize it (a family member in the field of ABA did though). So I think if possible you should mention your concerns privately to the teachers. They can keep an eye on her and pass along the info as they see fit.

As for the dynamic between the girls, I agree your emphasis should be on the teachers helping your daughter socialize with the other kids. Don't bring Annie's parents into it at all. And frankly, things change so frequently in terms of the social dynamic at that age that I would guess the situation would resolve itself within a couple of weeks, anyway.
posted by JenMarie at 8:38 PM on October 11

Hey, I just wanted to add that maybe you‘re feeling alittle ganged up upon or judged. That was not the intention, but parenting questions always feel so fraught for the asker, it‘s hard not to take things personally.

Anyway, all of us here who have ever parented 3 year olds understand. We know how this feels like such a big deal and how important it is for you to enable your kid‘s budding social life. We know about „but what if I am ruining everything by not handling this correctly“.

And we are here from the future, so to speak, to tell you: It‘s going to be fine, more than fine! The next three years will bring changes in your daughter as a social being that you wouldn‘t believe. Her friendship adventures will surprise you and delight you a hundred times over (and sometimes annoy the shit out of you.) This here? Is just a blip. You will look back on it and smile.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:51 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]

Late to this thread but I wanted to add something that jumped out at me: it's actually quite inappropriate that the preschool is discussing Annie's behavior by name with you, who are not her parent. Good preschools do not do this. They will discuss any incidents with you and their response, but not name the child. It is a matter of privacy for the child with "behaviors," and also because (as it has with you) it creates interpersonal issues between parents.

Social interactions between kids are something for the preschool to handle. If this is actually an issue they should be working with Annie to develop better social skills, and to redirect her in situations the know trigger the behavior.

If you really think this is an issue, then I'd suggest switching schools. A preschool that can't observe even the most basic best practices (student privacy) is not likely to be one that can address behavioral problems well.
posted by yarly at 5:46 AM on October 15

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