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Leaving play dates gracefully – Good Parenting

Headshot2011Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Leaving Gracefully

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My 3 3/4-year-old son falls apart at the end of almost every play date, especially when I pick him up to come back home. When a friend has to leave our house, “Manny” usually huffs and puffs a while, then storms to his room. Do you have any suggestions on how to help him be more graceful about saying Good Bye to his friends? I worry they or their parents won’t be as willing to make dates in the future because of this.

His Soother

Don’t miss last week’s column about how to manage rambunctious boys.

Dear Soother,

Sounds like you’re having trouble with transitions. For preschoolers, and everyone with the “slow to warm up” trait, it is difficult to let go of one experience before accepting the next one. This person needs solid routines each day, each week, and eventually each year or else they are uncomfortable, uncertain, and at times, unhinged.


Try this. Have a standard routine for the end of each play date. At your house, there’s a five minute notice before clean-up time. This can be a kitchen timer (he can eventually learn to set it himself) and or you can simply announce – with the same inflection in your voice each time – “Manny, Benny is going home soon. We’ll have to clean up in 5 minutes.”

Have an easy to leave activity to do in case the parent isn’t punctual about pick up. For example, kicking a ball back and forth in the yard, markers and paper, or a jumping distance contest (they could probably do this for at least 10 minutes). Whatever you choose, try to keep it the same activity for the end of every play date. And when the friend leaves, prompt Manny with nice parting words, “Thanks, for coming to play with me, Benny. See you at school!”

At a friend’s house, use a predictable ritual that also allows Manny to anticipate that the visit will soon be over. If you want to chat with the playmate’s parent, do so before your son sees you. Or, make it your routine to say, “Hi, Manny, I’m here. I’ll be talking with Claudia’s dad for a few minutes; then it’ll be time to clean up and go home.”


It’s also possible that your play date ending times coincide with getting the children back to their respective homes before lunch or dinner. In which case we’re dealing with low blood sugar. Small children need wholesome snacks between meals to accommodate their tiny tummies, high energy output, and steady growth. If you adjust your timing around feedings – and not leave the announcement that play time is over until their blood sugar levels are depleted – you will get more cooperation. A snack-to-go is a nice routine to include at the end of a visit to ward off cranky behavior in the car. It provides essential fuel and prevents car boredom. Easy to carry snacks can include: a paper cup of finger cereal, a baggie of cut apples, or string cheese in its plastic package.

Connecting before Disconnecting

Transitions go more smoothly when the transitioner can see/feel/hear/smell/taste or otherwise connect to what’s coming next. The transitioning moment begins with a segue. You acknowledge what Manny is doing – get into his “zone” – and move his thoughts toward the next activity. For example, “What a great castle you’ve built! Who lives here? Is there a kitchen? Anything cooking in there? When we get back home, we’re going to cook up some ravioli for dinner.” As he is letting go – getting his coat, saying his good-byes, buckling up in the car – help Manny securely attach to the coming activity. “Would you like to help with dinner? I’ll need a noodle-taster!”

Unwind Time

Manny is hard at work when he plays with a friend. In the preschool years, children are developing skills to: share one another’s ideas, negotiate for objects, negotiate for power, use their imaginations to solve problems, and manage their emotions. The intensity of play time with a friend should be followed with some quiet time – which Manny is providing himself by going to his room. Try to follow his lead and keep things mellow after each play date. Quiet time could include soothing music in the car, and/or snuggling up with a well-loved picture book on the couch. Hopefully the two of you will soon work out pleasant transition routines that don’t have to include his storming off.

If you can keep your focus on Manny’s focus, you can help him to transition more smoothly.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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