What to do when a playdate goes wrong

What to do When a Playdate Goes Wrong from Encourage Play

You’ve taken the time to set up a playdate. You found a potential friend, you invited them to play at your house or at a playground and things are going really well. Then, something unexpected happens. Maybe it’s an argument, yelling, or even hitting (eek!!). What do you do?


In order to effectively intervene, you need to be monitoring what’s happening, especially if this is a first playdate. You don’t know how the kids are going to react or interact with one another. Stay close by and keep an eye and ear out for their interactions. You don’t need to be in the same room with them, but you also need to be able to get to a situation quickly if you need to.

You know your child best, and you know their warning signs when things are starting to escalate. If things start to get too feisty, be prepared to move in.

Everyone Pause/Everyone Freeze!

When you do go in, have everyone freeze. This way, you can assess exactly what is happening. Give them clear and concise directions to move away from one another. If they are fighting about a particular item, have them both step away from it.

Quick Calming Activity

Emotions are probably running high at this point, especially if things got physical. Have the kids do a quick calming activity. Explain that you’re just going to take a minute and calm down. Here are 5 quick calming activities that you can do. Chances are, you are upset too, so make sure you model and do the calming activity with them.

  • Have them take 5 deep breaths
  • Get a drink of cool water
  • Blow bubbles
  • Use a calming jar
  • Do a body calming exercise - Here’s one I’ve used plenty of times over the years.
    • Sit or Stand up straight and cross one foot in front of the other.
    • Put your hands out straight in front of you, palms facing out.
    • Cross your hands at the wrists and lace up your fingers.
    • Bend your elbows and gently turn the your laced hands towards your body.
    • Put your tongue on the roof of your mouth and breathe gently for a minute.

Quickly debrief with the kids

If you’re not sure exactly what happened, ask each child to briefly explain what happened in their own words. Tell them they each get a turn to explain what happened and to be respectful and not interrupt each other. Acknowledge hurt feelings and unexpected actions. And then figure out what to do next.

Switch activities

If you do need to step in because it’s not going well, transitioning them to a different structured activity can help ease tension and keep things positive. It could be a board game or an art project. Even switching the place where they are playing can help. Have them move rooms, or switch from inside to outside.

Hang around close by for a few minutes

Sometimes when kids get into an argument or physical fight, things can escalate again. Stay closer by and watch how things are going. This way, if you need to intervene again, you’re easily available. Also, you can monitor the kids - Do they seem to be continuing to get calmer? Excellent. Do they seem to be escalating again? Maybe it’s time to wrap it up and leave.

Know when to leave

If it’s gotten to a point where it’s too escalated, and the kids aren’t able to play together cooperatively, then give yourself permission to call it a day.

Make sure the adults communicate

If the other parent is there, include them in these steps. If they aren’t there, give them a debrief of what happened. Be honest about what happened, how you intervened, and how the kids responded.

After the whole thing is over, debrief 1:1 with your child

Talk with your child about what happened and what they can do the next time. This would be a great time to use the social autopsy to figure out where things went wrong and come up with a plan for the next time.

People make mistakes, arguments happen. It doesn’t mean you can’t ever have a playdate again with this person. This can be a teachable moment for everyone, and kids can learn how to manage when an argument/fight happens in a positive way.

Have you ever had a playdate go wrong?

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