Our resident agony aunt Rhona McAuliffe has some advice for a full-time mum who thinks her best friend's eldest is 'Satan'
I have two kids under five and work four days per week. My best friend is a full-time Mum and we’ve fallen into the routine of meeting on my days off. Her kids are almost the same age as mine and we should all be happy out. The problem is, I can’t stand her eldest child. I’ve had to stop calling him Satan at home when I’m telling my partner what he’s done as I know it’s just not cool. He’s a sly kid who always ends up hurting my eldest in some way – biting, hitting, pushing – and denies it every time. He taunts my daughter by confiscating everything she tries to play with or locks her out of his room. He shouts and screams at his Mum and has massive melt-downs all the time and she does absolutely nothing, she doesn’t correct his behaviour with my daughter or address his tantrums, just ignores it all. I dread meeting them. I try to mediate dramas as they arise by myself but my friend has a very ‘let them at it’ attitude and never gets involved. What can I do? I don’t want to upset my friend – who I’ve known forever – but I also don’t want my daughter to think that it’s acceptable to behave like that. I’d far prefer to spend the day alone with my own kids as I get to see them little enough.
Can’t Cope With The Drama, Leinster.
Okay, I need to lead with a disclaimer: I am the last person anyone should be asking for parenting advice. Although my youngest has only recently turned eight, those early years of just about coping on illegal levels of sleep (thankfully I wasn’t operating heavy machinery) have all but been wiped from my brain. My husband was frequently away for long periods with his job, I was working full-time and my family were in a different country. I’m also the worst at asking for help.
It was only a few months ago that I fully processed the madness of our situation and the lack of support I had. It was, in fact, the most random sighting of a heavily pregnant stranger pounding the pavements outside a local hospital that got me. In one dark moment, I foresaw her trauma, the overwhelming transition from independent entity to professional minder, nurturer, feeder and guide; the yawning chasm between The Before and The After life; the social and emotional brain-melting decisions that lay ahead, that were loaded to shape little lives forever. The guilt.
It came all at once and I retched, stark reality rising from my gut. Maybe the temporary numbing of my senses was necessary for me to lollop on mindlessly all those years? Maybe with a bit of objectivity I see exactly what I would have done differently? Either way, I’m here now and the kids are fine. Ish.
So, what about Chucky and his Mum? The first thing to remember is: it will pass. You’re on the coalface right now, the kids are pre-school and probably about as feral as they’re going to get, unchecked. Aggression, biting, pinching and hogging all the toys falls within a range of possible behaviour up until about five. I believe. The issue is, your friend isn’t helping her son to understand the difference between being a decent human v’s being a Trump.
And that’s the disappointing part. It’s not the child’s fault, it’s the parent’s. Your friend is playing no active role here and as a result there’s a Lord of the Flies justice system in operation. Chucky’s in charge and your daughter is suffering at his hands, and teeth.
I’m also being facetious. By typecasting the kid as a Chucky or Satan or Damien we’re not being fair. He may be ‘lively,’ difficult to connect with and outwardly offensive but ultimately I wonder if he’s trying to provoke some kind of reaction in his Mum? In my experience with similar kids over the last twelve years, the ones who isolate themselves by being prickly or antagonistic are some of the most sensitive and caring people I know, beneath the resting bitch face.
That doesn’t mean they’re immediately likeable, often they’re not, or that they’re easy to be around, especially if you’re a kid too. There may also be other factors at play like anxiety, for example, but that falls way out of your jurisdiction.
It’s easy in that situation, when you’re both stretched to your limits, to question your friend’s moral compass, to wonder why she’s not defending your daughter who is obviously being victimised. It’s easy to see how the situation – and your friendship - could implode with one epic face-off. Hold back. By all indications, your friend is experiencing possible Parental Burnout. It’s a thing, supported by a 2017 Belgian study of 2,000 parents. Not that we needed a name for it. Your friend is overwhelmed and struggling to cope.
Tempting as it is to can your days together completely, stay the course. Do start casually mixing up your diary week by week so that you remove the fixed expectation but try to see them every second week for your friend’s sanity. If she wasn’t in your closest circle I would probably be suggesting you progress to child-free meets only.
As it is, your friend needs your support and a reality check. There are countless tacks you could take here. Gently broaching it directly with her is one. Teasing out a conversation about her son’s behaviour and asking what her game plan is (it doesn’t sound like she has one) will hopefully ease her into a strategic frame of mind. That might be as far as you can venture into the No Judgement parenting zone and emerge intact.
You could also impose your own boundaries at the start of each ‘play’ date. ‘Okay guys, I’m starting a new thing, if anyone gets hurt, we’re going home.’ Brief your daughter in advance. You don’t want her to jump into a ‘victim’ role or become a tell-tale but do reassure her that you have her back and that torture is never mandatory. When the inevitable happens, you will have to follow through, explain why and run for the hills. This will hopefully prompt Son and Mum to review their behaviour.
Try to remain positive about your friend’s son, be generous of spirit; suggest activities you can do together, away from home. This will mean less quality time with your friend but more chance to get to know her son on neutral territory.