Navigating Get-Togethers with Relatives, Friends, and Their Kids

We may not always agree with the parenting styles of our relatives and friends, and that’s okay. Get-togethers can still be enjoyable, positive social experiences for us and for our kids. In this episode, Janet offers her perspective on some of the common challenges that arise in gatherings with friends, family, and in public situations with other kids and parents. Her suggestions include:

Transcript of “Navigating Get-Togethers with Relatives, Friends, and Their Kids” 

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be speaking to some of the common scenarios that parents share with me, and that I’ve experienced myself with family gatherings where there are relatives, friends, other children, and even just people that you might see in the park. How do we handle children’s behavior in these situations and intervene with the adults as well? This is a big, big topic. There are a lot of variables. I wish I could cover everything, and I’m not going to be able to. That’s already frustrating me, but I’m going to do my best to talk about some of the most common issues and how to respond to them effectively.

Okay, so I guess I’ll start by offering some guidelines, and I’m sure these guidelines are going to get me talking about details. What do we want to do when we’re going to be gathering with other families, other children, or maybe just adult relatives? We want to do something that I often talk about and that’s:

1) Setting ourselves up for success, knowing that these situations can be challenging for a lot of different reasons — everyone’s personalities, everybody’s thoughts about how children should be raised. So we want to go in with the lightest load that we can so that we’re available to deal with the different things that might come up.

And so that less things come up as well. That’s another way to set ourselves up for success.

If we have control over the environment, if it’s at our house, let’s say, then there are things we may be able to do, like make it possible for children to play outdoors if there’s space, weather permitting. Or, to make a safe area inside where there are not a lot of things that we don’t want them to get into.

And if we’re hosting, of course, we’ll want to consider maybe not having this be the time to try out that fabulous new recipe, something where we’re going to be very occupied and busy with other things besides dealing with the interactions that happen.

So making ourselves as available as possible, because it’s quite possible that children aren’t just going to be happily occupied while we do all these other things. It can happen and it does happen, but it helps to always consider, not in a negative way, but just to be ready for some of the more difficult, challenging things that can happen. Because children do tend to need more supervision in more novel situations.

The second guideline I want to bring up, and it’s really part of setting ourselves up for success, is setting our children up for success.

2) Preparing children for what will happen, just the facts and what we’ve gleaned maybe from the issues that our child might be having or sometimes has, or the other children that are going to be involved… or the other adults, what we know about them.

We’ll want to look at some of the possibilities and just bring those up to our child. “This is who’s going to be here. And oh, sometimes that child does that thing where they get very close in your face and you don’t like that,” for example. Or, “an adult sometimes talks very loudly with you, and I know that that kind of bothers you.” So whatever those specifics are, we want to bring those up. And then also help our child consider: “What kind of things can you do if you’re uncomfortable in the situation? Do you want to have a signal with me or just come tell me when you need help?” “Could you move away from that child or that adult?” And then things like: “What toys would you like to put out” if this is the child’s house, “… for everyone to use?” “What would you like to put away?”

And I would keep in mind that children, especially groups of children, they really don’t need many or any toys at all. They can make up things to do with just each other. So I wouldn’t worry that there have to be a lot of things out.

What we want to try not to do when we’re preparing is to say things like, “It’s going to be so fun when Grandma comes, Grandma adores seeing you!” Because as fun as it is for us to get excited about situations for children, getting happily excited can actually be as stressful and dysregulating as being scared or angry or or upset. And if you’re like me, that’s really easy to forget, because as adults, we have a different context for excitement. It doesn’t tend to unravel us like it can with children.

And on that note, the next point I want to make is to:

3) Beware of the “overs.” That’s when children are over tired, over hungry, over excited, overwhelmed. So we want to expect and understand that excitement can be stressful for children. They can get easily dysregulated, even with the most positive experiences. And that’s something that we often miss considering.

A parent wrote to me recently about how puzzled and discouraged and dismayed she was because she took her children to their favorite parkour trampoline place, and they were really whiny and unpleasant and she couldn’t believe it. She felt like she’d done them this great favor. And she said, “and the day before, we’d had a birthday party with all their friends, and it went wonderfully.” And my thought was, Ooh, well that’s actually not a coincidence that the children fell apart like that in the trampoline place after having this big day before. I could see that, because it happened to me many, many times. By my third child, I think I finally started to figure this out.

But we might think, wow, we’ve done this and that and the other, and we don’t realize how exhausted and overdone children can get and how it’s then actually impossible for them to enjoy themselves even in the best circumstances. Magda Gerber, my mentor, said this all along, “Do less, enjoy more.”

However, the next point I want to make is actually knowing that children also need more from us in these group situations. Therefore, we want to:

4) Be as proactive as possible. Because children, they’re going to need more of a helping hand with their excitable, impulsive behaviors, whether this is with other adults or other kids or with their siblings. Again, that’s why it will help us to minimize what we’re taking on with hosting duties so we can be more available to our kids. And if this is a newer mix of people or if our child has been showing maybe a higher need for intervention lately, they’re having a little problem with their impulses, their behaviors a little off track, I would err on the side of over rather than under intervening.

And by over intervening, I don’t mean coming in with this big energy and overdoing it, but being as on top of it as possible, being early in the intervention and maybe intervening in areas where you wouldn’t otherwise. Like if a child’s trying to dominate other children or you see things that maybe are starting to go off track… Especially because we’re going to be distracted when there are other people involved, it’s okay to stop things early and stop things that maybe we wouldn’t normally stop. But I would try to always do it from a non-judgmental place of help and love.

Now, one of the really common challenges that parents share with me is that, because they’re in the process of learning and transitioning to a more empathic, respectful way of setting boundaries that maybe they haven’t practiced that much yet, they kind of get stuck feeling betwixt and between, kind of frozen. You know, it’s like we don’t want to follow that impulse we might have to scold and get harsh, but we just haven’t practiced enough and therefore we haven’t built enough confidence getting another way into our body. Or maybe we haven’t seen it modeled enough to respond another way. Therefore we might not be intervening soon enough or firmly enough.

But even if we’re not sure of ourselves, if we can just practice sort of coming in early, maybe coming in sooner, or in situations where we wouldn’t, setting those boundaries, stopping our child’s behavior… I’m going to talk a little more about how to do that. Because the other adults and the other children actually do get on edge and then maybe overreact out of their discomfort when it feels like things are out of control. So it never hurts to brave being more proactive.

And actually that doesn’t mean stopping play and stopping interactions so much as being there calmly at the ready. We don’t have to come in and stop it. But we want to come in walking, not running if possible because we don’t want to project that kind of intensity or that feverish pace. We just want to come in and just be there. If you see something starting, “I’m going to come close,” but maybe we’re not saying those words, we’re saying it to ourselves. Hmm, I’m not sure about this. I’m going to go close so that I’m ready if something starts to get out of hand. That’s not the same as hovering, because we want to do it from a place of what I have called “buddy-guarding,” which is just: “I’m here, I’ve got your back, just going to make sure everything’s cool here. And that actually brings comfort to children.

So hovering where we’re nervous does the opposite for the adults and the children around us. But coming in confidently ready, that projects a sense of calm for everybody. They don’t have to worry, because we’re there, they’re safe, their kids are safe.

The next point I want to make, this is the fifth point:

5) We want to teach, not preach, and we want to teach in the best possible way, which is modeling with a capital M, rather than trying to directly tell someone what’s the best way of parenting or what they should do.  Unless somebody directly asks, and even then, if they’re a parent themselves, we might want to be careful about how we frame it. Mostly we’re just going to teach by modeling in these situations. So we’re going to show instead of tell, being ready, being the bodyguard, doing our best to be there but not rush in.

Then if something’s happening, we’re just going to go close as we’re stopping our child or the other child from doing something that we don’t want. This works so much better than trying to direct children from across a room.

For some reason, when we are telling a child from across the room, “oh, don’t do that, stop,” it often seems to actually ignite the behavior. And then of course we tend to get more frustrated when we’ve asked a child to do something and they don’t do it.

I think one of the reasons is that when children are showing that their behavior is off track in different ways, “misbehaving,” for lack of a better word, they often know that they’re doing something they’re not supposed to do, but it’s impulsive behavior. So when we correct them verbally, “don’t do that,” It’s basically telling them something that they already know and that they’re kind of stuck doing. It’s like we’re telling them to put reason into the situation and they’re not in a reasonable place in that moment.

So much of intervening with children is about our “how” rather than our “what.” It’s not what we say or even what we do as much as our confident tone and our genuinely trusting attitude, trusting children that they’re not going to go too far out of bounds and that we can stop them, and trusting ourselves that, no, we’re not going to be perfect and things are going to happen but, we’re going to contain most of it. We can. We can do that. We’re not going to get situations that we can’t find a way to handle. We are the adults in the room.

One bit of imagery I’ve used is trying to unplug that reactive thing inside that many of us have where we just react to everything like it’s an emergency. There are very few actual emergencies and there are a lot of situations that by us trying to stay a little calmer, we can diffuse.

I’ll be able to give a few more details about that in a bit, because I also have a note from a parent with a specific question.

But for now I want to talk a little about how to:

6) Intervene, interpret, and acknowledge feelings. So this is where we want to be using our energy. We don’t want to be wasting our energy by attempting to solve the struggles that children have. I mean, maybe some of you have experienced, I have, where we’ve tried or we’ve observed another parent trying, “okay, here’s another toy then that I can give you because this child has that toy.” And now all the children want that toy instead, etc.

Children have their own weird, wonderful ways to move on with each other if we can allow for there to be some conflict and messy feelings in the transition. And when there’s conflict, again, it’s going to be safe conflict because we’re there to help them not hurt each other. We would have our hand in between and say, “oh, you want that and you want that.” And, “you don’t want to play that game and he wants to touch you that way.” And, “hmm, I can’t let you. But you seem really disappointed by that.” And while I’m doing all that, I can be very adeptly preventing the action from from happening.

Those are the kinds of interventions that I recommend. We’re not taking sides. We’re not annoyed at one and think the other one’s right, and the other one’s wrong. All the children have a valid point of view. It’s where they’re at that day in that situation dealing with their own level of comfort. Children are doing the best that they can, they really are. And if we see that way, it really does help everybody feel safer and calmer.

Yes, people are going to judge this child’s a brat, that child’s a victim. We can be the ones that stay neutral and therefore stay helpful. Again, we can’t control what other adults might do to try to fix things. So that’s okay, let them do what they do. We’re going to save our energy for what matters, and model our way of intervening in a way that others will sense and be comforted by the handle that we have on our children’s behavior.

Really, it can be this magical thing, acknowledging feelings. And I know I’ve talked about that a lot in my podcast. I would practice this with adults too.

Let’s say a child is crying and one of the adults is telling them to stop crying or saying “it’s okay, it’s okay, ” or trying… to distract them, whatever. And if this is my child… This is a common one that parents bring to me that really upsets them because they’re trying so hard to allow their child to have feelings, to normalize feelings in their family. And then other relatives or other adults seem to be doing the opposite and feels like they’re undoing everything we’re doing. Then we can be there modeling a different way and actually acknowledging those adults’ feelings.

So we’re acknowledging our child’s feelings, modeling how to do that, “Ugh, you didn’t like that happened and that’s upsetting” and whatever the specifics are. “You wanted it to go another way.” Or, “it feels like no one’s playing with you right now.” And then to that adult that is having a hard time, we can say, “Yeah, it’s really hard to to hear that crying, isn’t it? When we love someone, it’s really, really hard.”

So I’m acknowledging those feelings as well. And that is really the best chance we have of teaching because it’s not judging the child, it’s not judging the adult, it’s not judging anyone. And that’s how people stay open to what they’re learning.

And along with this idea of adults doing things differently and it feeling like they’re undoing what we’re doing, the last point I want to make is:

7) Stuff will happen. Let it go. It’ll be what it is. You know, with a bunch of people in the room and children in the mix, it’s not going to be smooth very likely. At least we want to expect that it’s not going to be smooth. But there’s no need to fear this or let it undo us or put us on the defensive. Because our children, they’re unlikely to be harmed by a harsh word by another adult or from a child. A lot of parents share that concern with me, and I am convinced it’s unfounded. It’s the steady diet of our responses that matters most for children. Those will come from us, their very influential parents, who don’t need to be perfect either.

But other people, children might be surprised by them or taken it back or get their feelings hurt, but they’re not going to be permanently harmed or crushed. There may even be some positives to children knowing that not everybody understands everything and people do have different reactions to things. That’s okay. They actually only need one person to understand and allow them to have their feelings and stay on their side, and that can be us.

If we’re concerned about a situation that happened and how our child responded to it, we can decompress with them at a later time. We want to be careful not to project because maybe our child was okay with it and they’re sort of processing it, but we’re worried so we want to make a bigger deal out of it than it was.

The healthiest way to decompress would just to be clear on what we actually saw. So we might say, “I noticed that you looked startled when Aunt Sue shouted at you. It seemed like she was upset that you were playing so roughly with your cousin. And I’m sorry that it took me a minute to help you stop earlier because I wanted to help you with that.”

Or maybe it’s, “You looked a little uncomfortable when Uncle Bill was trying to wrestle with you. It’s really hard to say no when someone’s playing and you don’t like it, right? Next time, I’ll be ready to help you sooner. Or you can even say, ‘no thanks uncle.’” So we might give them suggestions like that, but mostly we just want them to feel that they’re not alone in whatever they’re feeling. A lot of things will be different from the way that we do them and whatever our child feels about these things is valid for them.

So now here’s a question that has some more specifics in it. A parent asked:

I know this question may not be what you normally talk about, but it’s been something that’s coming up a lot lately for me. How do I deal with other children misbehaving? Sometimes parents don’t step in when I would expect they would. And it leaves me feeling uncomfortable and unsure how to handle it.

A while back, we had friends and their kids over. Their kids were very physically aggressive and my kids had been hit and pushed several times. The mom would lightly address it, but it kept happening. Then he started being destructive and hitting furniture and other things with a toy. They just laughed it off. But I ended up asking him not to, and things got awkward and uncomfortable.

Is there a way to politely handle a situation when the parents don’t? By the time I end up saying something, I know my emotions are feeling tight. And even though I try to keep it out of my voice, people can sense it. Thanks.

Right, so this is also a question a lot of parents bring to me and my answer is actually pretty simple: Do the same thing you would do with your child with another child. It’s not like we’re going to get in-between those parents and their child, but we can still look out for that child and our child from that neutral, helpful place that can be so calming and healing and diffusing.

This parent says: “the kids were very physically aggressive and my kids have been hit and pushed several times.”

So when I see that’s happened once or that it’s starting to happen, again it’s the “how” more than the “what.” It doesn’t really matter that much what I’m saying here, it’s how I’m coming in. And how I’m coming in is helpful, calming, and as confident as I possibly can be, acknowledging everybody’s got feelings, everybody’s got a right to them. I see every child from a strong place, but they need help. They’re doing the best they can in that situation.

For some reason, these children that came over are having a hard time on this day in this situation with their parents’ mood maybe. Or maybe they’re trying to get attention from their parents and get some boundaries there. I don’t know. But I’m here to give them those things and at the same time, of course, protect my children, protect my house.

And it’s not like we have to stop everything before it happens, every single thing. But with this attitude that can be so magical, you’ll see that things lose their power. Children are getting what they need and it almost always eases up. And it is a way also of teaching. Not that the other parents wanted to be taught anything, but it’s a demonstration that we can do.

So I wouldn’t let other children hit or push my child, whether that’s at the playground or in my house or anywhere. So if I see that happening, I see that starting, I’m going to come in, quickly, but not running in. “Oh, I’ve got to stop you. Yeah, I can’t let you hit. I’m not going to let you hit.”

And then, “Are you okay?” to the person that got hit. But I’m not going to do a big rescue victim thing. If my child is really upset, “You can come hang with me for a bit. I’m going to go do this.” Or, “Come, come sit right here, we’ll watch.” But that probably wouldn’t be called for if I could just be there stopping it calmly.

That child will probably be very surprised that they’re getting noticed but not getting blamed, not getting yelled at. They’re just noticed. “And I’ve got to keep you guys safe.”  Like,  “Ooh, I can’t let you push either.”

We don’t want to sit back and let it go on.

It sounds like this parent was afraid to go in and that’s understandable, right? Because she thought she was going to come in in a judgmental way and she was probably feeling judgmental about it. So that’s really the first thing is this hard challenge with our children, with all children, seeing behavior for what it is. It’s a call for help. I’m out of myself. I’m not at my best. Help me stop me, but don’t get mad at me because that makes me feel even more uncomfortable and I’m already uncomfortable. That’s why I’m doing this.

So acknowledging feelings, stopping the behavior.

What this parent did, it sounded like she kind of held it in and like hoped that other parents would do something. And then she said that the child got physically destructive hitting furniture. Yes. What happens if we let it get out of control is what it sounds like happened to this parent. We’re going to get upset. She says, “my emotions are feeling tight.”  Of course.” Because we’re human beings and we feel powerless if we’re giving up all our power to those other parents to do something, because we’re trying to be polite. But the one that gets bothered most by this is us, and then we’re not going to be effective.

Most children are kind of used to that from their own parents that the parent is wound up, maybe not setting the boundaries early enough, not wanting to go in and just stop it, trying to tell a child across the room to stop doing it and then we’re going to blow up, right? Because that’s normal for us when we’re getting increasingly frustrated and we feel powerless and out of control.

So own your power. Go right in there. Be the hero that stops things and isn’t afraid of this child getting mad at you. Maybe the parents want to get mad at you, but it’s going to be hard for them to because you’re not yelling at their child, you’re not angry at their child. You’re trying to help. You’re seeing something there. You’re seeing a child who’s looking for boundaries and you can be the one to to give them that.

So yeah, this parent says, “I ended up asking him not to and things got awkward and uncomfortable.” As she said. Her emotions were feeling tight by then and she was trying to be so polite and kind. And the thing is, we can be polite and kind and so loving if we go in and stop things. That child doesn’t want to be hurting children and hurting the the house, but they’re finding themselves stuck there and no one’s helping them. We can be that person.

I hope some of this helps.

For more… my books make great holiday gifts! No Bad Kids:Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care, A Guide to Respectful Parenting are available on Amazon, in audio on Audible, and wherever eBooks are sold.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.