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About the Author:

Ron McMillan is a behavioral scientist and coauthor of four New York Times bestselling books: Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, Influencer and Change Anything.

Dear Crucial Skills,

My seven-year-old daughter is stuck in a three’s-too-many triangle with two of my neighbor’s daughters. Stakes are high because I don’t want to disrupt ties with my neighbors, but these girls are almost to the point of bullying my daughter. I know kids will be kids, and I don’t know that the discipline of the parents will change. Should I just give up and tell my daughter not to play with them? Do I restrict the girls from playing on our playground? How can I help my daughter deal with the neighborhood “mean girls”?

Treading Lightly

Dear Treading,

I am happy to give you some advice about your problem but want to emphasize that this answer comes with no guarantees of outcome. I have faced this problem twice; once with a mostly successful outcome and another that was not so good. I have eight daughters, and I’ve concluded that it’s very hard for girls to hangout in threesomes. But, alas, I’ve been jaded by my personal experiences and shouldn’t try to generalize.

In the situation you describe, there are two issues: the problem of your daughter being excluded and the problem of things being “almost to the point of bullying.” I recommend you be most concerned about the bullying problem. I believe there is a tendency for parents to underestimate the pain and damage caused by bullying. It’s a form of violence we should not tolerate.

I recommend you speak with the parents of both children, and do the following:

Ask yourself, “What do I really want?” You certainly want to stop any bullying and make your daughter safe. You might also want the other girls to be friends with your daughter. This is where I start getting skeptical. I think you can get kids to play together, especially under structured, planned conditions; but to get two children to include another regularly and consistently, boils down to their choice. It’s hard to make kids be friends. Nevertheless, work to stop any bullying behavior for sure, and see the threesome as a bonus if things go really well.

Gather the facts. This is the homework required to have this kind of crucial conversation. Find out what actually occurred and who said what and why. Don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions about motives.

Share your good intentions. When you meet with the parents, begin by sharing with them what you want and what you want to come of this conversation. You might say something like: “Thank you for meeting with me. I want to discuss our daughters and make sure that we nip any problems between them in the bud. I also want to keep a good relationship between us parents. I’m not trying to cause any problems or bad feelings.”

Describe the gap. Factually describe what happened and compare it with what is expected. You could say, “I spoke with my daughter and she told me when she went to play with Mindy and Jessica, Mindy told her to get lost. She asked what was wrong and Mindy said they didn’t have to play with ‘a stupid baby’ and pushed her. My daughter came home crying. Now, I know that kids will be kids and I’m not trying to blow this out of proportion, but his kind of thing has happened at least once before. I want the three to be friends and to be kind to each other.”

Ask a diagnostic question and listen. Once you’ve introduced the issue without making accusations and laid out the problem in a non-judgmental way, ask a question to see if the other parents are aware of the problem. Find out whether they have a different point of view. Keep in mind you are not here to pick a fight or place blame. You are having this conversation to solve a problem in a way that preserves your relationships. Try:

“Are you aware of this situation? Do you see it differently?” Listen carefully to understand.

From this point, the conversation could go many directions. The other parents could be concerned and work with you to resolve the situation, or they might be defensive and protective of their daughters. They could even blow it off and not see it as an issue that deserves their attention. They could split and not agree on what needs to be done.

I’m not sure what will come next in your situation, but I believe by starting in the way I recommend, you will avert many problems that could otherwise pop up and decrease the likelihood of your success. You’ll need to be ready with all your skills and clear thinking to get to good outcomes.

If the parents don’t respond in the way you would hope, I would counsel you against talking with the two other girls directly. It’s very easy to have your words misunderstood and misconstrued when reported by the children back to their parents. Better to coach your daughter on how to handle the situation with the other girls. Practice what you want her to say to them if she’s confronted, and focus on helping her build other friendships.

Remember how fluid relationships can be at such a young age and recognize that today’s apparent brat could easily be tomorrow’s best friend.

I hope these ideas help and I hope things work out well. Keep in mind, the most important thing that might come of this: your daughter learns how much you care about her and remembers the things you teach her about dealing with others her age.

All the best,

P.S.  Because this is a very tricky situation, I encourage other readers to write back in the comment section. What has been your experience? What advice would you give this parent?

Ron McMillan is a four-time New York Times bestselling author and co-founder of VitalSmarts, a leader in corporate training. To learn and master more of these dialogue, accountability, and behavior change skills, sign up for VitalSmarts’ free, weekly e-newsletter at visit