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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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