When you’re a mom, the friendships you forge with other mothers are indispensable. But these relationships are not without their complexities. Sometimes, they become lifelong friendships, and you—and your kids—grow up together. But other times, you can see the fissures forming long before your kids hit elementary school and you know the end is inevitable.
But ending a mom friendship that began when your babies were in diapers isn’t easy. It’s painful and awkward and you probably won’t ever be fully certain that you did the right thing.
I know, I’ve been there. Recently, I made the decision to step back from one of these relationships. Our kids played together as infants. We navigated potty training, sleep woes, milestone worries, juggling the demands of multiple children, and, oh yeah, parenting during a global pandemic. As a people pleaser who prides herself on getting along with just about everybody, it wasn’t easy. Here were the signs that it was time to step away, plus what I learned from the experience.
While parenting experts have often noted that toddler and early preschool behaviour like hitting, toy-taking, and screaming is totally developmentally appropriate, it’s still one of the hardest things to navigate during parenthood, especially when your child is often on the receiving end.
If you find yourself getting anxious before playdates, whether it’s because you’re nervous your child might be hit, or even that your child might do the hitting, it may be time to step back.
Aggressive behaviour in young children is almost always a phase and usually peaks around age 3, so it could be as simple as waiting to hang out until it passes.
As a parent of a young child, I’ve often found it’s very difficult to be close friends with someone who has radically different parenting styles than I do.
While I try to expose my kid to all different types of people from varied backgrounds, I don’t necessarily want him hanging out with a kid whose parents allow screaming, wrestling, hitting, and talking back—all behaviors we don’t permit in our home.
I was surprised how early my son started voicing his preferences for playmates. The kicker came when I asked him if he wanted to play with this specific friend at his favorite park. No, he’d answered. He’s not nice to me.
And there it was.
At that moment, I felt like a failure as a mom. I’d needed my 3-year-old to set boundaries, to articulate why we needed to step back from a years-long friendship. He didn’t like the way he was being treated. Full stop.
After that, I started following his lead and asking for his input before I scheduled playdates. And—the hardest part—I started respecting his boundaries when he said no to a playdate or event like a birthday party, even if it was socially awkward for me.
One thing I’ve learned from my experience is that it’s best to intervene early, be direct, and set boundaries with both the mom and the child. I didn’t do that for fear of creating awkwardness or hurting a friend’s feelings. That was absolutely not the right approach.
Dr. Helen Egger, the cofounder and chief medical officer at children’s mental health startup Little Otter, offers her thoughts on dealing with aggressive behavior from a playmate.
“If your child has [a playmate exhibiting aggressive behavior], stay calm and assess the situation,” she says. “This will reassure your child that the situation is in control. First, make sure your child is OK. Then be clear about the rules. For example, no hitting. Provide a way for the kids to ‘re-group,’ either by doing things separately or providing more parental ‘scaffolding’ to help the children interact in a positive way. If the aggression continues, end the playdate, if you can.”
‘Provide a way for the kids to re-group, either by doing things separately or providing more parental scaffolding to help the children interact in a positive way.’
She also advocates for strong boundary-setting.
“If your child is experiencing consistent aggressive behavior from a playmate, you should be clear [with child and parent] what your expectations are for them to play together,” she says.
I’ve taken the boundary-setting approach to heart. For me, it’s as simple as sending a quick text to a fellow mom before a playdate, “Hey, I’ve noticed there’s been a lot of hitting going on at playdates. I think we both need to watch the boys carefully while they play until this phase passes.”
Or you could intervene in the moment, preventing the hitting before it happens by saying something simple like, “I won’t let you hit X. That hurts him.” This one requires quite a bit of helicopter parenting—and you might have to get comfortable correcting another child— but it is quite effective.
With mom friends, sometimes a break from the friendship is just what you need to repair things.
Egger suggests that before taking a break, you bring your children’s interactions closer to home. “The first thing to do is to prioritize having play dates with the child at your home or when you are present so that you can oversee their play and step in if needed,” she notes. “If you are seeing a pattern that is recurrent and your child is being adversely impacted by the child’s behavior, I would limit playdates.”
Taking a step back and letting emotions regulate, giving your kids some breathing room (and perhaps waiting out that aggressive phase), and yes, even taking stock of how you might have handled the situation better is often the best approach. Plus, it can leave the door open to dip your toes back into the friendship down the line.
‘Be as compassionate and empathetic as possible. Kids [working through aggressive behaviors] are usually facing challenges which are hard for them and difficult for the family.’
But how you broach the break in the friendship is important, Egger says.
“[I]t is important to talk with the other child’s parents about ‘taking a break’ but it is critical to do so in a way that is supportive and non-shaming,” she says. “Be as compassionate and empathetic as possible. Kids [working through aggressive behaviors] are usually facing challenges which are hard for them and difficult for the family.”
In some cases, it’s possible for children to grow and learn impulse control during a period apart, she notes, in which case another playdate down the line might be more successful.
Sometimes the mom you love and totally click with has kids that don’t click with yours. But that doesn’t mean you can’t forge a relationship outside your children. In fact, as toddlers become preschoolers, you may increasingly find time for moms’ nights out, coffee dates, even the occasional weekend away. Hey, a mom can dream, right?
And as for my mom friendship, there are no hard feelings. We still see each other from time to time and swap stories about motherhood. We get together without our preschoolers. Over time, I’ve realized that this situation wasn’t easy for her, either. And while our kids occasionally see each other at the playground or a mutual friend’s birthday party, I think we’ve come to terms that they probably won’t ever mesh well. And that’s OK.
When she’s not busy wrangling a toddler, preschooler, and one very stubborn French bulldog, Rachel Morgan Cautero writes on all things parenting and personal finance. She’s been published in The Atlantic, Investopedia, Parents, The Everymom, and Truly Mama.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2021, but has been updated for timeliness.
For more information and to follow Rachel, head here: www.rachelmorgancautero.com