Three is a difficult number when it comes to kids playing together.
Have you ever noticed on a playdate at your house if there is a sibling involved, sometimes the guest plays with the sib instead, leaving out the child who the playdate was for?
If you look, you’ll see kids trying to play in threesomes, and for most kids, it rarely goes well. Someone almost always becomes the third wheel when the other two sides of the triangle decide what they want to play, or just want to play with each other.
I’ve seen several instances of triangle trouble at my social groups recently. A couple of friendship pairs have been triangulated by new kids joining the group and inserting themselves into playing. There is nothing inherently bad about that, but the third party causes tension in the triangle, and the tension can switch between any of the three kids participating, depending on what the other two want to do.
Sometimes the third child can’t keep up or doesn’t want to do what the other two want to do. Sometimes the third party lacks the confidence to hold up their side of the trio and gets inadvertently shut down or left out. Because when I ask the two kids who are playing if they are purposely excluding the third, that is usually not the case, but it can be.
So, what to do to help kids with this triangle dilemma?
Name it for what it is, a friendship triangle. And triangles are difficult to play in sometimes.
Make sure that purposeful exclusion is not occurring. If it is, find out why and help the child being excluded with the skills needed to successfully join (frequently, it is because the child is being rigid or bossy).
Triangles can create what I call “flip-flop” friends, meaning someone appears to be your friend sometimes, but not always. It is important to teach kids to question whether or not it is a real friendship worth solving by speaking up about it, or if it would be more advantageous to look outside the triangle for someone else to play with.
Try to schedule playdates in even numbers, it will go MUCH easier for everyone.
I think it’s important for kids to understand that their friends may simply want to do something different, or play with someone else that day. Kids with social difficulties tend to glue themselves to one friend, which can quickly wear out the friendship. Giving them ideas for options when this happens (play with someone else, head for the playground equipment, draw for a while, etc.) can help a child take time out of the triangle without losing either of the other two friendships.