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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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