My son (aged 6) has a friend who he gets on really well with but sometimes the friend can be quite violent with him. My son either lets it go, or if it really hurts him, he cries (obviously). The friend’s parents don’t say anything, so I try to brush it off too and tell my son not to be too upset, but really I think the parents of the friend should say something to their son about his behaviour. The parents are good friends of ours so I don’t want to fall out with them, but I also want their son to stop hitting our son and being so rough with my son. What do I do? 

You’ve summed up one of the trickiest situations to navigate as a parent: discovering that people you like don’t manage their child in a way you like. Life usually works best if you can drop judgement at the door when it comes to other people’s parenting styles. But when the style is no style, and ignores violence and rough behaviour towards your child, then judgement is key. You need a strategy. But if you keep your judging focussed on the situation, rather than towards the people involved, then I think you’re in an excellent starting position to deal with things.

Life usually works best if you can drop judgement at the door when it comes to other people’s parenting styles. But when the style is no style, and ignores violence and rough behaviour towards your child, then judgement is key

Another way of putting it: think of your approach not as a highlighting of their lack of boundaries, but as an appreciation of your own. While it’s clear that something is seriously amiss with this boy’s violent behaviour, it’s not your issue to tackle. Who knows, behind closed doors, your friends may be struggling to cope with it. They might be embarrassed to confront their son in company. Maybe they’re worried. Maybe they’re not. No matter. Your job is not to parent their son, but yours. This takes the pressure off you, really. You don’t have to step into the tangled complexities of their family life, you don’t have to trace the root of this behaviour, or tackle their relationships. It’s their problem.

But their problem is impacting on your family. So focus on your son. What do you want him to learn about dealing with this? One very valid option: you could severely limit his time with the boy. His life, after all, isn’t boot camp: he’s only six. I’m sure he has lots of non-violent friends he can hang out with where he doesn’t have to take deep breaths and summon up courage.

Yet, inevitably, because his friend is also someone he enjoys playing with, he will be faced with the chance of rough or violent behaviour. So what tools can you equip him with that will empower him? You know the personality of your child best for this, but from what you write, he seems pretty gentle and chilled out. These are wonderful traits. You could work with them, and do him a great service as he grows, by imbuing them with a very deep core strength, which often has to be practiced to be learned. Gentle, but strong; chilled out, while knowing his own boundaries: those sound like incredible gifts for adulthood.

Core strength starts in situations like this. For instance, tell him that when his friend hits, or is violent, he should put his hand out, in a stop sign, and say (or shout: children love being given permission to shout), “NO!”. If the boy doesn’t listen, tell your son to say “that’s fine”, walk away, and to play with something else by himself until the boy stops. The other child wants to control the situation, but your son does not have to be controlled.

Perhaps a helpful angle of perspective for you is that your friends may not have boundaries on violence, but your family do. In this way, they can feel and observe the direct consequence of bad behaviour, without feeling that you are judging them

I know it’s a lot to ask two six year olds to navigate. And maybe those actions won’t stop the hitting (remember, that’s the job his parents have to tackle), but they will give your son the idea that what is happening is wrong, and he has the power to withdraw his company. If you are present, I would suggest you tell your son that he can sit with you for a bit, so that he feels secure, and knows you’ve got his back. He can run off and play again when the moment is forgotten, at his own pace. I’ve concluded from my own mistakes, that this is better than smoothing over things and making my child head back to play in the lion’s den before they’re ready.

In this way, perhaps a helpful angle of perspective for you is that your friends may not have boundaries on violence, but your family do. In this way, they can feel and observe the direct consequence of bad behaviour, without feeling that you are judging them. And simultaneously, you are showing your son that he doesn’t have to engage with uncomfortable behaviour. He can be confident to play when the boundaries are kept, but also develop the assurance that he is strong enough to walk away when they are not.

We’re talking about a pretty major life skill here, which might take a while to develop, but it will come. I hope things change, and everybody discovers something new. I don’t know about you, but for me, it seems that from having to teach my children these things, I get to learn them too.

More in Regulars