How to Help Your Children Build Healthier Friendships (and Deal with the Difficult Ones)

How to Help Kids Build Healthier Friendships (And Deal With the Difficult Ones)

There are times that I have the social skills of a tapeworm – who doesn’t – but for me, they’re usually pre-coffee, mid hunger, or during some sort of cardio exercise that sounded like a decent idea until I started to sweat – around about the two minute mark. What’s important though, is that the skills are there when I need them. It’s the same for our kids.

Being able to form positive relationships is critical to every facet of life – home, school, career. That said, there are plenty of adults (many in leadership or management!) whose lack of social grace is far beyond the simple remedy of coffee, food, or the acceptance that it takes more than a water bottle to turn oneself into an athlete.

What helps children build better friendships?

A recent study has found that children who have a secure attachment to their parents are more likely to develop healthy friendships and adapt to a difficult playmate by asserting his or her needs.

Children who are securely attached:

  • become visibly upset when their parent leaves the room and happy again upon reunion;
  • will look to their parent or caregiver for comfort in an unfamiliar or frightening situation;
  • will use their parent as a base from which to explore their environment, returning now and then for a confidence boost.

The study, published in Developmental Psychology, measured the security of child-mother attachment for 114 children at 33 months of age. Six months later, the same children were randomly paired with another child of the same gender and observed. This was done three times over the course of a month.

Researchers found that children who had a secure attachment to their parents were more responsive to their new playmate at the first meeting, even if that playmate was prone to anger. Securely attached kids continued to respond positively to their playmate on the second and third visits when the playmate displayed low anger, but not high anger.

As explained by researcher Professor Nancy McElwain, ‘Securely attached children are more responsive to suggestions or requests made by a new peer partner. A child who has experienced a secure attachment relationship with caregivers is likely to come into a new peer relationship with positive expectations.’

During play a securely attached child:

  • has an expectation that their interactions with other kids will be positive;
  • will quickly adjust their response to a difficult playmate who is quick to become frustrated or angry;
  • will likely use suggestions and requests rather than demands and intrusive behaviour (such as snatching) when playing with a tetchy playmate;
  • will eventually adapt to the controlling assertiveness of an anger-prone playmate by becoming more controlling themselves.

There is a vast and convincing body of research that has demonstrated how a secure attachment between a parent and child not only affects friendships, but also increases a child’s sense of security, self-esteem, self-control, and the capacity to learn and remember in school. These studies have involved observing new mothers with their babies then following those babies into childhood and through to young adulthood.

Forming a Secure Attachment – How?

I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to make us do the most important job we’ll ever do on the least sleep we’ll ever have, but that’s new motherhood for you. I love being a mum – love it – but those first six months, all these years on, continue to be a blur.

That’s a good thing. I’d go so far as to say survival-of-the-species good, because the further away I get from the crazy, exhausting, wonderful ride of new motherhood, the more I convince myself that I got it right on more days than I got it wrong. (Perhaps by the time I’m 90, I’ll remember myself as a new mother so poised and polished as to be fiercely scouted for baby shampoo commercials – but too busy being excellent to say ‘What? Me? Sure. I’ll help you with your commercial. But I just have to harvest my organically home-grown vegies. Oh. And can we schedule it around the little one’s sleeps. Three weeks old and already sleeps so well – you know – easily and often. I think the times tables I sing as he’s falling asleep really help. Pfft – it was nothing like that. Nothing at all.)

Chances are, in those times you feel like you’re getting it right (and sheer exhaustion can make it seem like there are less of those times than there actually are), you’re probably doing exactly what you need to do to develop a secure attachment with your baby.

Secure attachment is not about parents subjugating all of their own needs in favour of their baby’s. The research is important and well established, but of course has to be considered in light of personal circumstances.

Take the research and do with it what you can. Anything you are able to incorporate will add to the tightness of your family bundle.

If you are open to the knowledge and in tune with the needs of your child, you will make it work, even if it doesn’t look exactly as the research says it should. Ultimately, as the parent, you know best, but if you are open to what half a century of research has shown us, you can know even more.

century of research has shown us, you can know even more.

Now for the research. What we know is that a positive relationship between a baby and caregiver influences brain growth. There is a saying in the field, ‘The neurons that fire together, wire together.’ What this means is that through a positive relationship, neural connections in the baby’s brain are made that, in a sense, ‘store security’. Parents of securely attached children play more with their children and are more responsive to the child’s needs than parents of insecurely attached children.

Decades of research on attachment have given us a very clear idea of what leads to a secure attachment:

For Babies
  1. Have one regular, consistent caregiver for the first six months of the baby’s life.  A baby learns to trust and thrives best, now and in the future, when somebody is there to provide consistent care and affection. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a mother, father,  grandparent or adopted parent, the point is that one primary person in the first six months is more likely to produce a securely attached child than a series of people working together to fill in the gaps. That’s not to say that other people aren’t important – they absolutely are, not the least of which is to look after the primary carer of the baby for whom the first six months can be a completely exhausting, sometimes thankless, time. What’s important is that one person, rather than a stream of several, is there consistently for the baby.
  2. Establish a routine for eating, sleeping and play. Having a routine allows the baby to develop the security and comfort that comes with predictability. The baby knows who and what to expect and when to expect it.
  3. Be affectionate. Smile, touch, cuddle. Nothing is more important. In a famous experiment in the 1950s baby monkeys chose a cuddly soft mother surrogate over a wire mother figure, even thought the wire one offered food.
  4. Respond to your baby’s cues for comfort. Responding to a baby’s distress or cues for comfort and attention with warmth and confidence will help them to develop trust and a feeling of security. When a baby cries, smiles or reaches out with their arms and a parent or caregiver responds warmly and sensitively, the baby learns that they can count on their caregiver to be their for them and a secure attachment is built. But – and this is a very important ‘but’ – smother them and they’ll become less securely attached. Babies need to be given the opportunity to develop confidence in their own ability to soothe themselves. Responding to every noise, whimper, cry and gurgle will undermine their independence. That said, the experts generally agree that a young baby shouldn’t be left to cry for more than a few minutes, but that doesn’t mean that the baby needs to be rushed over to and picked up every time he or she makes a noise. Research has shown that when a baby’s cries have been responded to consistently and sensitively, they will cry less by the end of their first year and will be more independent and co-operative when they are older.
  5. Follow your baby’s lead. By going along with your baby when they initiate a game or interaction, you’re teaching them that they are able to influence their environment and the people in it. This is a critical part of forming friendships.
For Children
  1. Be reliable and responsive. Even people who abuse their children claim to love them. What they don’t do is tune in to their child’s signals and respond to their needs.
  2. Spend real time together. Spending time together – without electronics – will help establish reward circuits in the brain for empathy and connecting.
  3. Enforce boundaries. It’s part of their growth and development to test the limits. Part of making them secure is letting them know where the boundaries are. It’s like double checking that you’ve locked the door – you’re sure its locked but checking again makes you feel more secure.
  4. Listen to everything – even the crazy nonsense. Listening to everything lets them know you’ll be there to listen when it’s important too. If you pick and choose when to listen, they’ll pick and choose when and what to tell you – and you don’t want that.
  5. Have fun. Be silly. Be open to your kids and the funny things they do. They can be pretty hilarious at times. Laugh with them at the world and at yourself and you’ll be giving them something awesome.
For Adolescents
  1. Respond to their needs. Sometimes this will mean staying away and giving them space, sometimes this will mean bringing them a hot chocolate while they sweat over books well into the night, sometimes this will mean just giving them a hug and saying nothing at all.
  2. Listen. Listen. Listen. Be careful offering them too much advice. You’ll have them at the listening. For most teens, you’ll lose them just as quickly if you preach.
  3. Communicate love, appreciation and support. This means sometimes putting a lid on the anxiety you might be feeling around their performance or their risky behaviour. They need to know that you trust them and respect them. And that you’ll be there to dust them off – not an ‘I told you so’ in sight – when things don’t look exactly as it did in their adolescent , adventurous mind.
  4. Praise them verbally. They might act like it doesn’t matter, but it does.
  5. Have fun with their sense of humour. Your adolescent will be developing a very grown up sense of humour. Go with it. Laugh at it. Cherish it. It will mean the world to them.

Just because one of your kiddos might be difficult, that does not mean they are insecurely attached. A small child might be fussy or demanding but if parents respond sensitively, a strong parent-child bond can be established. There’s no reason that child won’t go on to have strong, close relationships with their peers.

Genes are genes, not destiny. Ditto with early life. It’s a clue, not a prescription. The brain is always open to changing – the word is plasticity. What this means is that at any point in the life span, people can have experiences that initiate neural growth towards more positive behaviours.

Children develop social skills over time. If yours is the one who believes, with all of her two year old heart, that sharing is for gumbies, and tries with admirable effort and voice to convince others of her leadership potential, there’s no need for concern.

Stay tuned in and keep responding sensitively and sooner or later, they’ll be thankful.

4 Comments

Liz

Thank you! This has been really helpful. I have a 19 year old, a 15 year old and a 12 year old all offering us new challenges as parents and this reassured me that we probably did enough right in the early days and are usually responding well enough now that we will all survive!

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Jo Ward

I am an early childhood teacher in New Zealand, working with 0 – 2 year olds and I have recently completed a course of study in Infant and Toddler Mental Health. I absolutely loved reading this article as it translated a technical subject full of big words and research terminology into everyday language. The subject is one I am so passionate about and I spend a lot of time engaged with parents about what secure attachments look like. Thank you for this article – I will pass this on to the parents in our nursery.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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