Playdate Makeovers

If you know your child's play personality, you can help her get along with her pals -- and always get invited back during playdates.

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Phillip Graybill

The Social Dictator

This future Bridezilla insists on calling all the shots. Her friend will play The Little Mermaid with her and like it -- even if she'd rather do something else.

What's the deal? "A stubborn, bossy child may simply be afraid of doing things someone else's way," says Carolyn Pirak, a clinical social worker in Seattle. Once she comes up with a game plan, it must be followed exactly or she'll consider the date ruined. Plus, if your child is under 5, her empathy skills are still developing, so she's probably not thinking about how her behavior is making her bulldozed buddy feel.

Friendship tips: Be honest. Do you spend hours on end playing an obedient Boots to your child's demanding Dora? Often, social dictators are used to having grown-ups do whatever they say. Start setting limits at home, says Rose Kavo, PhD, a child therapist in New York City. Instead of going along with a game until your child grows tired of it, say, "We'll play with the dollhouse for 10 minutes, but after that it's time to switch to blocks."

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Phillip Graybill

The Sensitive Soul

Your child spends a good part of every playdate in tears, whether it's because his buddy grabbed the red crayon first or because he thought the dinosaur in his drawing looked like a cow.

What's the deal? It's extremely common for toddlers and preschoolers to overreact and have a meltdown when they feel slighted on a playdate. This is especially true of a hypersensitive child. Even though his friend didn't intend to hurt his feelings, a chronic crier takes offense quickly and feels like he's always being picked on.

Friendship tips: Instead of trying to defuse the issue at hand ("But cows are just as nice as dinosaurs, honey"), take your child to a private area and help him calm down so he can express his frustration with words, not tears. Once he stops crying, try giving him a little pep talk: "I can tell you're ready to have fun with Matthew now." Shorter playdates (say, 30 minutes to one hour), scheduled at times when your child is less likely to be tired or hungry, will also help minimize his future meltdowns.

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Phillip Graybill

The Follower

She has no trouble getting along with other kids. But that's mainly because she's a total pushover and will do whatever they say.

What's the deal? "Followers just want to fit in and be included," says Pirak. Unfortunately, this eagerness to please makes them easy marks for their strong-willed pals. "When Evan, who's 7, hangs out with pushy kids, they tend to dominate him," says Rosemary Williams, a mom from St. Paul. "He feels bad when his ideas get shot down, but in the end he just goes along with whatever they want to do."

Friendship tips: Set up playdates with kids who seem to have a flexible play personality, and help your child choose the day's activity beforehand: Does she want to swing and slide at the park? Would she prefer storytime at the library? Or perhaps a fun outing to the aquarium? Resist the urge to fight your kid's battles for her. If you must intervene, do so in a subtle way (you might ask if everyone is happy with the game and whether it might be time to try something new).

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Phillip Graybill

The Leg Clinger

You're sure that your child would have a fabulous time digging in the sandbox with his pals -- if only you could pry his fingers from around your knees.

What's the deal? Unfamiliar situations -- like meeting new kids or being in a strange house -- can make timid types even shyer than usual. Leg clingers genuinely want to join in the fun; they're just too afraid to let go.

Friendship tips: Keep get-togethers on the small side (one or two other kids max). Arrive early at the playdate to give your child extra time to adjust. At first, you may need to sit down on the floor and play along with your child. Once he starts to get comfortable, pull back gradually until you reach the park bench or the couch. Smile or nod your head in assurance if he looks your way, but don't approach him or you might never be able to leave his side. Sometimes taking along something to share, such as Matchbox cars, a colorful ball, or an interactive toy, can help a reluctant child break away from you and get into the game.

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Phillip Graybill

The Couch Potato

Sure, she'll go outside and play -- right after this episode of Arthur. Ooh, Dragon Tales is on next!

What's the deal? Lots of kids are just as happy to veg out as to play with their friends. Why? They may be tired after a day of preschool or other activities, and they may see playdates as a chance to push the limits you've set on TV-watching.

Friendship tips: Try not to schedule playdates when your child's energy level tends to be low. Dinah Gieske found that when her daughter, Maisy, started attending preschool until 2 p.m., the standing 3:00 playdate she had with a friend no longer worked. "Suddenly, all Maisy wanted to do was watch Sesame Street," says the Brooklyn mom. "Her poor friend had to stand in front of the television to get her attention." Rescheduling the gatherings for later in the day solved the problem. But if your child is simply trying to stretch out his screen time, establish a firm playdate policy for TV: "After 15 minutes, the set goes off and we'll all go to the backyard and play."

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Phillip Graybill

The Wishy-Washy One

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Whether they're big or small, this kid simply can't make them. A typical conversation sounds like this: "Want to go to the playground with Paul?" "I don't know." "How about the zoo?" "Nah." "Want to work on puzzles together?" "Uh-uh." But when you ask what he'd like to do, he has no answers.

What's the deal? It's difficult for preschoolers to make choices. "To young kids, the world is a busy place with endless options," says Pirak. "They may be afraid of picking the wrong thing and missing out on something even better."

Friendship tips: Forget 31 flavors. If you narrow the options to chocolate or vanilla, you're far more likely to get a response: "We can either go to the library or the science museum with your friend. Which one would you prefer?" If that doesn't work, model good decision-making skills by saying what you'd prefer to do and why: "I think we should go to the library today, because I'd like to check out some new books to read."

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Phillip Graybill

The Short Fuse

Watch out! Accidentally knock down this little hothead's block tower or take away a toy she's eyeing and you'll get Legos lobbed at your head.

What's the deal? A child with a quick-trigger temper blows up because she's still learning how to play nicely with others and to share. "It's hard for her to realize that even if another child is playing with her toy, she'll get it back later," says Kathleen Kiely Gouley, PhD, a clinical child psychologist at the New York University Child Study Center. Plus, a young child whose verbal skills are still developing may find it simpler to express her feelings with actions than with words.

Friendship tips: Step in as soon as your child flies off the handle. Make it clear that hitting (or throwing, kicking, biting, or yelling) is not an acceptable reaction. Once she's chilled for a few minutes, have her say "I'm sorry" before resuming the playdate. Even a forced apology will help her understand that the behavior was wrong and will soothe her friend's hurt feelings. Follow the same protocol at home when conflicts arise with her siblings (or with you!).

Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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