Resources for Parents

Resources for Parents

A Guide to Supporting Kids with Playdates

A Guide to Supporting Kids with Playdates

Takeaways for busy parents:

  • Playdates are an essential part of a child's social development and can cause significant stress for parents, especially parents of neurodiverse children.
  • Clear and concrete expectations are best reviewed with your child before and throughout the playdate.
  • Create structured activities during the playdate to reinforce prosocial skills and promote success for all involved.
  • Parents can provide positive praise focused on specific behaviors to all children throughout the playdate.
  • Parents should model flexibility during the playdate; this may include ending a playdate on a positive instead of staying longer than their child can handle.

Playdates provide a valuable opportunity for social and emotional growth for young children. Interacting with peers in a structured play setting helps children develop crucial skills such as communication, cooperation, empathy, and problem-solving. Many families with neurodiverse children are understandably hesitant to engage in playdates. Typical playdates could involve letting the children play unsupervised while the parents catch up in another room. Kids with ADHD and other mental health challenges struggle immensely with unstructured free play. They may struggle to interpret the social nuances of the interactions, not understand when a friend is no longer having a fun time, or become too rough during silly moments. Neurodiverse children may need a different approach to playdates. Organizing and facilitating successful playdates requires effort and attention. Here's a comprehensive guide on how parents can support kids during playdates to ensure they are enjoyable, educational, and beneficial for everyone involved.

Establish Clear Expectations

Before the playdate, communicate with your child and the other parent(s) to set clear expectations. Prepare your child for the playdate to ensure they feel confident going into the interaction. Discuss details such as duration, activities, snacks, and specific rules or preferences. If the playdate occurs outside your child's home, discuss any particular rules of the other location. Positively affirm the rules, such as "use safe hands and feet" instead of "don't hit." If the playdate is taking place in the child's home, they may choose to put away certain toys that are off-limits during the playdate. Parents can role-play specific scenarios ahead of the playdate, such as what to do if the friend wants to play with an off-limit toy. Clear communication and expectations help prevent misunderstandings and ensure everyone is on the same page.

Choose Appropriate Activities

Many children struggle with free play, especially neurodiverse children. Unstructured play allows for opportunities to build creativity and imagination. However, many children with ADHD and other challenges struggle with the vague rules of unstructured play. It is often most beneficial to add structure to the playdate's activities. Select activities that encourage cooperation, creativity, and active engagement. Structured activities such as arts and crafts, cooking activities, or physical games such as Simon Says are excellent choices. Consider the interests and preferences of the children involved to make the experience enjoyable for everyone. If parents choose to integrate unstructured activities into the playdate, such as pretend play, devote a small amount of time (e.g., 10-20 minutes) and reinforce the clear expectations referenced above. While most parents don't imagine needing to integrate a structured routine into their child's playdate, this can often promote success for all involved. As with any new skill, the goal should be scaffolding support for the child. The first playdate should include a highly structured routine with clear expectations and boundaries. As a child has greater success with playdates, the parent can reduce the scaffolding over time.

Provide Support

Many parents often struggle between helping facilitate a playdate and wanting to avoid smothering their child. As with most aspects of parenthood, the goal is a balance of allowing your child the space to explore with their peer and avoid hovering during the playdate. While giving children space to play freely is essential, supervision is still necessary to ensure their safety and well-being. Stay nearby to offer guidance, intervene if needed, and address any concerns promptly. Allow them the freedom to navigate social situations and resolve conflicts independently, only stepping in when necessary. One helpful tool during playdates is providing labeled and specific praise. Use praise when you observe your child using prosocial skills (e.g., sharing, turn-taking, speaking kindly, etc.). Parents can praise their children by telling them directly what they like that they are doing, such as, "Joey, great job using safe hands with Mia." Praises provide positive reinforcement for behaviors we would like to see more of.

Be Flexible

Similarly to how we encourage children to be flexible thinkers during playdates, parents are encouraged to do the same. Ultimately, parents know their children best. If your child needs a break during a playdate, offer them a snack break or a walk around the block. Many children with mental health challenges can become overstimulated during playdates. When children are overstimulated, they may act impulsively or aggressively to escape the stimulation. It is always better to end a playdate that is going well early instead of waiting for it to end negatively. As difficult as it may be, parents may be flexible by setting an end time earlier than hoped to end the playdate on a positive note. As parents model flexibility for their children, it is also essential to acknowledge when their child is exhibiting flexibility during the playdate. Approach each playdate with an open mind, adapt to unexpected circumstances, and focus on creating a positive and enjoyable experience for everyone.

Reflect and Debrief

After the playdate, allow some time to reflect on the experience with your child. Ensure that you and your child are calm and relaxed before attempting this conversation. Provide feedback as a "praise sandwich." A praise sandwich refers to structuring your feedback in the following way: specific praise, constructive feedback, and additional praise. For example, you may tell your child, "I loved how nicely you shared with Sara during the art project. I know it was hard to keep your body safe during the balloon game, but we're going to practice how to give each other space during that. You did a great job taking turns picking out the music." Allow your child to share their thoughts, feelings, and observations about the playdate. Use this to reinforce additional positive behaviors, problem-solve any concerns, and discuss plans for future playdates.

Playdates are a vital part of a child's social development, allowing them to interact with peers, build friendships, and learn valuable social skills. However, for some children, playdates can be a source of stress and anxiety. Parents can support their children through these experiences and help them navigate the often complex world of social interactions. By following these guidelines and actively supporting kids during playdates, parents can help nurture their social skills, build lasting friendships, and lay the foundation for healthy social development. Remember, the ultimate goal of playdates is not just entertainment but also the enrichment of children's lives through positive social interactions and meaningful connections.

Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and is not meant nor intended to be health care advice or treatment. Should you need assistance with any mental health or psychological issue, including any parenting issues, you should contact a mental health professional.