I remember as a child spending hours playing with my friends either at their houses or at my house. Every time I try to arrange a play date for my son, it turns into a disaster. My son either spends most of the time protecting his toys or he becomes aggressive. Having Shabbos lunch company over with families with similar-age children as my son becomes highly stressful. I am beginning to think I should just not allow my son to get together with other children. Please help me.
Play dates are an important part of childhood for many different reasons, including keeping our children active and engaged in activities and social opportunities. For different age groups, play dates present different challenges. For younger children, simply sharing toys or taking turns can be too demanding. For older children, following the rules of games can become tricky. While the expectations of play dates may present difficulties for many children, our young ones with sensory processing disorders (SPD) have greater difficulties navigating what should be a great experience. This, however, does not mean that we must eliminate play dates; it simply means we may need to take a more active role in our children’s play dates.
Children with SPD often have difficulty with the unknown or when things become unpredictable. This is why when working with children with SPD we often advise parents and teachers to keep things structured for their children. The more structured the day becomes, the more children with SPD feel safe that the unexpected will not happen. This gives them a sense of security, which in turn often allows for productivity. Play dates are typically unstructured, and since we are dealing with two children, there is even less predictability within the play date. So how can we add structure and predictability to a fundamentally unpredictable situation?
To further complicate matters, children with SPD tend to be able to handle social situations in small doses; however, play dates often take place over a period of several hours. For example, your child is playing with a friend and initially things seem to be going really well. Your child was excited to have his friend come over and see all his toys. They began to play and you hear laughter coming from your child’s room. After some time of back and forth negotiations, which are common when two people get together, your son begins to sound like he is becoming frustrated. Eventually, after more time has passed and more negotiating was needed, your child’s frustration tolerance is at its end and he becomes upset, either removing himself from the play date or becoming aggressive. This scenario most likely occurred because each negotiation took up an excessive amount of energy for the child with SPD, and therefore his frustration tolerance was pushed too far.
As parents what can be done to help?
There are ways that we, as parents, can facilitate our children’s play dates so they feel successful and they can build relationships outside of school. The following are a few ideas we recommend to our clients with similar circumstances:
Arrange play dates in your house where you can be there to help your child navigate the experience. Especially for younger children, remain with your child to help facilitate the communication between the two (for example, sharing, taking turns, etc.).
As your child seems more comfortable and capable, begin to pull back a little and remain nearby during the time the children are together. When you see they can manage with you nearby, you should take advantage of that to allow your child a chance to feel some independence.
Let the other parent know, at the time of arranging, that the play date will last an hour. I strongly encourage keeping the play date short so your child can feel success and have the opportunity to feel like he had a good time.
Plan with your child in advance what toys he feels comfortable sharing with his friend. Perhaps his favorite toy can be put away where his friend will not see it so your child will not feel that he needs to share his favorite toy.
Come up with a list of short activities they can engage in. The list is helpful in case the other child does not want to play with some of those same activities. If you have a list, there can be multiple choices to choose from. Keeping activities short prevents some of the need for a lot of the negotiations mentioned above.
Finally, while we do not want to get involved in all of our children’s arguments, and we want our children to problem solve on their own, this may be too difficult for your child at this time to be completely on his own to problem solve. Helping the children problem solve together would be ideal to allow both children to feel success.
By Aviva Lipner MA, OTR/L and Alyssa Colton MA, OTR/L
Aviva and Alyssa are sisters, occupational therapists and owners of Kids’ Therapy Place, LLC. Their pediatric practice specializes in working with children and their families to enhance their lives and maximize function. For more information, visit their website www.kidstplace.com.