Stepping In It

Your Kid’s Upset About A Problem With A Friend At School. How Do You Text The Other Parent?

That awkward moment when you're like, "Hey! Um..."

Cropped shot of an attractive young mother sitting and using her cellphone while her son plays video...
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You are often your child's intermediary during the preschool and elementary school years, which can mean being their voice when there's a social issue. This is not the case in high school — your teen might die of embarrassment if you text their frenemy's parent. (If your teen is getting suspended due to hijinks, that's another story.) Even so, when your young child comes home saying there is a problem with a friend, your first instinct is to try to fix it for them. But what's the best way to handle this scenario, really?

According to the experts, your response should start with waiting for a beat before you spring into action. "We adults tend to want to talk everything out. But that's not generally how kids resolve conflicts," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist with her own practice in Princeton, New Jersey, and the author of Growing Friendships: A Kids' Guide to Making and Keeping Friends. "Usually, kids just separate for a little bit to let tempers cool. That could be for two minutes or two hours, or two days. Then they just come back together and are nice to each other. They move on."

Here are a few pointers for navigating what can be a pretty complex situation for both parent and kid.

First: Try to Get the Full Story From Your Kid

When my firstborn was in kindergarten, a mom friend learned that a classmate had hit her daughter during recess. Cue a lot of blame as we talked about the incident, which a teacher confirmed. Then my friend had the wisdom to ask her 5-year-old, "What happened right before she hit you?" To which her daughter replied something like, "Oh, I pulled her ponytail."

Dr. Kennedy-Moore quotes Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, with this line: "It all started when she kicked me back." While you should never doubt your kid, you do need to do some digging. "It's easy for a child to see what the other person did wrong," Kennedy-Moore says. "They're less aware of their contribution to the problem."

They're also fairly unaware of other kids' struggles. So if your child says something like, "My friend isn't talking to me," ask if maybe that child seems tired or sad. Or could the friend have gotten in trouble for too much talking?

Kennedy-Moore calls this "the maybe game," where she works with kids to discuss why another child might behave a certain way. "Both kids and adults who get angry easily tend to assume that other people's bad behavior is deliberate meanness," she says. "Usually, that's not the case. Thinking of other possible 'maybes' makes the deliberate meanness explanation seem less likely."

So before you text the other parent, "Tread very carefully," she continues. "Empathize with your kid's feelings, but then very gently say, 'What do you think your friend was feeling when that happened?' or more bluntly, 'Why do you think she did that?'"

The more you know, the more compassion you can have for the other parent. After all, it's never fun to be the parent who gets a text saying their child did something awful.

Texting If You're Not Close With the Other Parent

You may want to wait a day or so before contacting the other parent. Often, friendship rough spots blow over without any intervention from adults. Your child might feel upset about something today but be back to being best friends tomorrow.

If you are 100 percent certain that you need to check in with the other child's parent, your best bet is to request a quick in-person meetup rather than launching a long text.

"Texting is such a stripped-down form of communication," Kennedy-Moore says. "I don't recommend it for anything emotional because they can't hear your tone of voice. They can't see your facial expression. The odds of it going badly are high because people are defensive about their own kid. That's human instinct."

A way to start could be, "Can I ask you something at dropoff tomorrow?" and then, at dropoff, "I'm trying to get to the bottom of something my child is worried about that involves your kid; maybe you have some perspective." You could also do this in a phone call if meeting IRL is too hard logistically.

Don't accuse. Lay the problem out from your child's POV so the other parent knows where you're coming from. "My child seems confused, so I'm trying to see if you have insight," or "My kid seems upset. Do you have any idea what happened?"

The other parent might be defensive (wouldn't you be?) or apologetic and promising to bring it up with their kid, which may or may not change anything. Or they might deflect: "I don't know about it. My kid never mentions your kid." That kind of reply actually tells you a lot. The bummer about a lot of kid social issues? They're often only a big deal to one child.

The best-case scenario will be if the other child is also upset. That opens the door for a playdate meetup — a peace summit if you will.

Getting the Kids Together

I have gotten the most out of parent-side conversations while our kids play. I recommend this if the two of you need to talk out of earshot of the littles; sometimes bully issues are complicated, and the two of you need to frankly share information that doesn't fit neatly into a text. Children are weird and intense and have a whole history of behavior by age 4.

Also, playdates diffuse things by getting the kids outside of school. Children behave one way in front of teachers and classmates and can be completely different if you take them out to a park and let them run around.

A playdate can help everyone reset. Then again, a meetup may fall flat. I once had a mom ask me out to drinks so we could talk about our kids' on-off relationship. We did not solve anything. Conversation did not flow easily — we were kind of on different planets, and it suddenly made sense (probably to both of us!) why our kids were not best buds.

Meanwhile, If You and the Other Parent Are Close...

If your kids have been friends long enough that you're close with the family, I advocate for a total, frank WTH text exchange — no need to tiptoe. In 7th grade, my son's friend slugged him. Older and wiser, I asked Joe, "What happened right before he hit you?" But my son went with that old, coy lie: "I wasn't doing anything!"

So I texted the other mom, my friend, and asked, "WHAT happened today?" She knew exactly what I was talking about. Joe had teased her son, unaware that he was hitting a nerve, and her son lashed out. We made the kids apologize to each other. We're all still friends.

Things don't always work out. Sometimes you and your parent buddy exchange what you know about your kids' problems, but the kids are drifting apart anyway. They're not wanting playdates, or one is asking and the other is ghosting. The kids' friendship has taken its natural course. (Sniff!)

"Kids have autonomy in deciding who they want as friends," Kennedy-Moore says. While toddlers and preschoolers might have what she calls a "love the one you're with" friendship with classmates, even preschoolers prefer playing with some over others. As children grow older, they may decide they'd rather not be close to someone. You can insist on kindness to everyone. You can create opportunities to get together with certain kids or families, but you can't make your child be friends with anyone.

Invite New Friends In

Before you hit "send" to text another parent, it will be hard to guess where your kids' friendship is going and where your relationship with this other parent is headed. But there's good news: You can strengthen your child's overall friend network.

"Figure out ways that your child can do fun things with other kids. That's how friendships build and deepen," Kennedy-Moore says. Sign your child up for activities they enjoy so they find other kids who like the same things. Then, invite new kids over for one-on-one playdates, which Kennedy-Moore says is the glue for young friendships. "Have a new kid over even if your children have only had fun together once," she says — even just at a soccer practice, for example. "That's enough to go on!" Having a network of friends from different places will give your kid emotional armor when a school friendship gets rocky.

Then, There Are Just Lessons Learned

"We adults have not managed world peace or even perfect marriages, so why would we expect kids to be able to get along perfectly?" Kennedy-Moore points out. "But they learn so much from friendship rough spots. They learn about forgiveness. If the friend is truly sorry, let it go. If it happened more than a month ago, definitely let it go."

Your kid will gradually learn what we casually call "karma," which is really the old "what goes around, comes around" adage. "None of us is always a perfect friend. We're going to do things that are insensitive or thoughtless or accidentally hurt somebody's feelings," says Kennedy-Moore. "We'd like the grace of forgiveness. We have to give it if we want to receive it."