Welcome to our online series on parenting advice with our expert Dr. Deborah Wood.
Dear Dr. Debbie,
I’m a single mom of a sweet five-year-old daughter, “Maisy.” I keep in touch with her father, and she has seen him a few times. No other family members are in our lives, but we usually find friends wherever we are. Lately, Maisy seems to be more anxious than normal, wetting the bed and having accidents in the day time, too. She has brought an imaginary playmate back to life, and this seems odd, given her age.
We’ve moved a few times in her life, but since our last move, she has been slow to adjust. I don’t know if it’s a cause or a symptom, but she doesn’t seem to be as friendly as she had been before. She goes to kindergarten, and we keep in touch with a few of her friends from our “old” neighborhood, but other than the imaginary friend, I’m her only playmate – and to be honest, I think we bore each other. We’ve been to the nearby playground a few times, but haven’t yet found a new friend. What gives?
Dear Reluctant Playmate,
Could be that Maisy is seeing herself in a new light as she compares her family to others she knows. At younger ages, “Mommy and Me” is enough to satisfy a child’s social needs, therefore she was no different from her playmates. But as she widens her lens on families, she is aware of the role a Daddy could play.
Her current lack of friendships may be a symptom of Maisy’s self-doubt. She may fear being judged as different by other children who have two parents at home. Have you talked with Maisy about how families are different and how they are the same? Does she know other single mom or single parent families? A simple definition of family is two or more people who love and take care of each other.
A chat with her teacher may help provide you with more insight about how Maisy conducts herself socially. You can find out if Maisy is connecting to any of the other children, or if she seems emotionally withdrawn at school. Perhaps the teacher could recommend a classmate to pursue a friendship with. Likely there is more than one child in the class who lives with a single parent, although that needn’t be a requirement.
If getting together with her former playmates is possible, that could help relieve some of the stress and boredom and reassure Maisy that she has what it takes to be a friend.
Enduring friendships may also be struck up in places you and Maisy visit in your weekly routines. Be bold enough to introduce yourselves: in the waiting room at the pediatric office, at story time at the library, at a nature program at the park, or even at the grocery store. After school activities are another way to find friends with common interests – dance, art, science, etc. Some activities may be held right in the school building. Others options should be chosen close enough to home to accommodate getting together outside of class. Girl Scouting has Daisy troops for kindergarteners. If there isn’t a troop in your community you can find out about starting one. Contact the Girl Scout Council of Central Maryland at: www.gscm.org.
Regular playmates – at school or in the neighborhood – provide each other with scenes and roles for cooperative dramatic play. Typically they begin acting out what they have learned about family life, as in “I’ll be the Mommy, and you be the Baby.” When they get together, the drama is highly repetitive – fix meals, eat, change clothes, sleep, wake up and start all over again. With steady playmates, they learn how to give and take, honing their language skills to practice all the ins and outs of relationships. You’ll see shopping trips, doctor visits, picnics, weddings, and other common plot twists to everyday family life. By age five, the stories become more adventurous; robbers, evil queens, dragons, and other imagined villains challenge the actors’ skills at problem solving. Evil powers and heroic solutions represent the extremes to which relationships can be characterized. Frantic calls for police assistance and magic waves of imaginary wands help children feel they can cope with current challenges – for example, Mommy in a bad mood. Through their imaginations, they develop skills and confidence for future relationship difficulties.
Metaphorically speaking, dragons can be slain, and with the right magic, some beasts turn out to be princes. Throughout our lives, whether in fantasy or reality, we take comfort when goodness prevails and the bad guy gets his due. Make it a high priority to help Maisy find some friends with whom she can learn about relationships.
Dr. 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 www.drdebbiewood.com
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