Trouble on the Playground


This posting is the first in a series about a problem that challenges many parents that I know – how to help their child with problems on the playground or the lunchroom at school.

In this case, the child comes up to the parent and complains that kids were being mean to her at school. Now, of course, first you have to find out if this is correct. If it is true, it is an important problem and a subject for another blog. Here I am talking about a child who frequently perceives herself as a victim in social interactions whereas the teacher and you suspect that the real problem is the child’s difficulty negotiating a complicated social situation among her peers. Let’s imagine the case of a 9-year old girl, Sophie. The story the Sophie tells you will be something like this: “Janie was mean to me today and then Mrs. Jones was mean to me, too. I just can’t take it any more.”

Inside, you feel sad and frustrated at the same time. You have heard this story or one like it many times. Sophie has trouble keeping up with the rapidly flowing improvisational process of 9-year old girls on the playground. It is easier in the classroom, where there is structure – planned activities, assigned roles – but on the playground she can’t figure out to join a group, or when something changes in the fluid activity of the girls, she often seems to just get lost and drop out of the action.  As a result, Sophie frequently has no one to play with and has little success in initiating play with her classmates. You wonder why the teachers seem to disappear at recess, when your Sophie needs them more than ever. On top of everything, you are upset by Sophie’s including Mrs. Jones in the “mean” category. You thought that Sophie had a good relationship with Mrs. Jones, in contrast with her last year’s teacher, so this makes you feel even more disappointed.

Here are my suggestions for handling the situation. They derive from Peter Fonagy’s model of “mentalization” (Fonagy et al, 2011).

1. First, wait until she is calm to talk to her. If she is in an agitated state or begins to get into one when you begin to respond to her, comfort her and tell her that you will talk about it later. You also pay attention to your own feelings. If you are upset, you will not be able to comfort her, and talking to her calmly will be difficult.

2. Do not argue with her. That will turn you into a bad guy. For example, do not ask (even if you are thinking it), “Do you think you might have done something to make Janie upset before she was mean to you?”


3. Sympathize with her feelings. “It must be terrible to feel that everyone is against you!’

4. Break down her description of events into small pieces. Parent: “Help me understand. You were just playing a game with Ann, and Janie came up and asked if she could play with you, and you said, ‘No’.”  Sophie: “It was a game that only two people can play.” Parent: “Oh, of course. Only two people can play that game. But didn’t you just tell me that recently Janie didn’t save a place by her at the lunch table and you felt very sad?” Sophie: “Yes. She never saves me a seat, and I always save one for her.” Parent: “Hmm, but I guess you must felt kind of sad and left out when you had to sit at another table?” Sophie: “Yes, and I never do that to her.” Parent: “OK. But you know how bad it feels to be left out.” Sophie: “Yes.” Parent: “Just for a moment, what if we imagined that Janie felt left out when you were playing a game with Ann for only two people.” Sophie: “No, because it was for only two people.” Parent: “You are exactly right. The game was for two people, but I am guessing that Janie might have felt left out anyway just the same way you felt left out at the lunch  table, because there might have been a reason she didn’t save you a seat since I know Janie really likes you.” Sophie: “Well, she did say that she tried to save me a seat, but I didn’t believe her.” Parent: “I know. It is hard to believe someone when you feel so terribly disappointed.”

5. Slowly continue to introduce the inherent inconsistencies in her story (It may take several iterations of this experience to get to this stage) so that you can help her arrive at a version of the story that is not as black and white as she perceived it initially.

This process has been described by Fonagy and his colleagues and has as its goal the achievement of the developmental capacity of what they call “mentalization”, related to the cognitive psychology concept of “theory of mind” (TOM). TOM is demonstrated in the “false belief” experiment (Gopnik & Astington, 1988). In this experiment, a child is shown something deceptive (such as a doll in a crayon box). When a stranger comes into the room the child is asked what the stranger expects to find in the box. Three year olds generally said that the stranger will expect to find the doll, but five-year olds realize that the stranger isn’t privy to the deception and respond, “crayons”. This capacity to imagine another’s mind and realize that your own beliefs are not necessarily “real” vanishes in everyone in some contexts, such as under extreme stress, but it is hard for some children to achieve in the first place. That is not because they are unintelligent but because that particular developmental step needs extra help. Our imaginary “Sophie” might be perfectly capable of empathizing with another person when she is not stressed. but when she is stressed, such as when she is on the playground or lunchroom at school, she may lose this capacity. You can help your child by realizing that she is struggling with this part of her development and scaffolding this process.

Fonagy P, Gergely G, Jurist E, & Target M (2011). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self, Kindle Edition.

Gopnik A & Astington J. (1988). Children’s understanding of representational change and its relation to the understanding of false belief and appearance-reality distinction, Child Development 59:26-37.

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