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Preschoolers’ Peer Relationships

Your pre-schooler has friendships with his/her peers, children the same age as s/he.  You observe occasional difficulties in these relationships.  Are these normal?  What is “normal” among preschoolers’ (three- to four-year-olds) peer relationships?  How should parents, caregivers, nannies and preschool teachers handle difficulties in these relationships?

  • Preschoolers are just beginning to learn about self-control, socialization with peers, and the world around them. As with any learning curve, mistakes are often made (especially early in the learning process), and these mistakes provide valuable learning opportunities throughout the learning process. It is important for parents, caregivers, nannies and preschool teachers to have patience throughout the learning curve and give wise counsel when opportunities present themselves. For example, rather than condemning a preschooler for exhibiting a particular behavior, the more constructive adult response may be, “I understand that you are upset, and I would like to make that better for you. Let’s talk about good ways to resolve this problem. Ok? If you yell at your friend, does that resolve the problem? No? Ok, how about if you talk to your friend . . . see what is going on that made her do what she did . . . maybe she didn’t know that what she did would upset you. Oh, and maybe you can talk to her about what you’re thinking and feeling and work out some sort of compromise. Do you think that might resolve the problem? Yes? Yay! Now, how can I help you begin this conversation with your friend?” (Note: adults may criticize behaviors but not people. For example, it’s a “bad” behavior to yell at a friend, but that doesn’t mean that the preschooler who yells is a “bad” person.”)
  • As a result of preschoolers being in early in the learning curve noted above, they have not yet mastered basic social concepts such sharing, teamwork, emotional self-control, and delayed gratification. Preschoolers have not yet developed the ability to conceptualize fully how their actions affect others. As a result, skirmishes over who gets to play with which toy when may erupt, one or more preschoolers may “boss around” his/her peers, flares of temper or tears may occur over small disagreements or disappointments, and impatience may be prevalent. It is important for parents, caregivers, and preschool teachers to help preschoolers master these basic social concepts and conceptualize how their actions affect others. For example, a constructive adult response to a difficulty such as these may be, “I understand that you want to play with that toy right now. It is a really cool toy. Still, Janie had it first. How would you feel if you were playing with a toy and someone came up and just took it from you? You wouldn’t like that, would you? Ok, so you can understand, then, why you shouldn’t do that to others, right? I know you’re a good girl who wants to play nicely, so what can you do to play nicely while also getting to play with that toy? Do you think you could ask Janie if she would be willing to share the toy with you? Or if she’d give the toy to you when she is done playing with it? You don’t really NEED to play with that toy RIGHT NOW, do you? Ok, then, I know it’s disappointing not to get what you want when you want it, but it’s ok because, in the end, you are doing the right thing by handling Janie the way you’d like people to handle you.”
  • Preschoolers, in the process of trying to understand the world around them, try to categorize everything that they see. For example, a pet is typically either a dog or a cat; preschoolers will eagerly try to identify each pet they know as either a dog or a cat. Similarly, preschoolers categorize people. There are boys and girls, white people and black people, children who speak English and children who speak Spanish, etc. Often, when grouping people, preschoolers assign these groups as “we” and “they”. The “we” group (the group with which the preschoolers identify themselves) are assigned greater status than the “they” group. Preschoolers often fail to recognize the similarities between the “we” and the “they”, and they over-emphasize the similarities of the individuals within each group. This thinking leads to segregation and bullying. It is important for parents, caregivers, and preschool teachers to help preschoolers develop a broader understanding and greater empathy. For example, a constructive adult response to a difficulty such as these may be, “I understand that Chris is a boy. You think he’s noisy, dirty, and way too active, running around all the time. You’re right: Chris is a boy, but he’s not so different from you. You get pretty noisy too, you know. It’s true of almost all of us. When we get excited, we sometimes get carried away and don’t know how loudly we are speaking. The same is true with Chris getting dirty and running around. You like to play in your sandbox. That gets you dirty, right? And I’ve seen you run around a fair amount, too. It’s not that these things are necessarily bad. Chris may get excited about different things than you get excited about, like his toy trucks, but you get just as excited about your dolls. And I’m guessing that, if I gave you a bunch of toy trucks to play with, and there were no dolls around, you’d find fun in the toy trucks too. My point is that you and Chris aren’t so different. And just like your feelings get hurt when people say things that are unkind about you, so does Chris. So, when you said that Chris was noisy and dirty, that probably hurt his feelings. Can you see how it was hurtful to say that? Ok, so, now that you see that, what do you think is the best way to make it better? Do you think it would be good to speak with Chris, one-on-one, and tell him that you’re sorry for what you said?” Adults coaching preschoolers through situations such as these are also well advised to increase preschoolers’ one-on-one interactions with others from the “they” group so that an opportunity for the preschoolers to observe similarities can be developed. These opportunities should focus on similarities (i.e., both like swimming, for example). During such interactions, adults can frame objective differences in a positive light. For example, an adult may say, “Celeste, did you know that Juan speaks both English and Spanish? Pretty neat, huh? You know how many words there are to learn in English . . . Juan’s learning not just one but TWO languages! Imagine how smart he must be!”

Because preschoolers’ relationships are new and evolving, “normal” preschool relationships can be tumultuous at times.  Knowing what is “normal” keeps parents, caregivers, and preschool teachers from over-reacting when problems arise.  By following the tips above, adults can form effective responses to the normal bumps in preschoolers’ relationships.

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