By Laura Walker, staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions
The new school year means rekindling old friendships and the beginning of new ones. While not every friendship will last a lifetime, it is the fundamental social aspect that has such a profound effect on a child’s overall development. Learning how to interact and show emotion through relationships builds the foundation for children’s academic success, mental health and social skills.
Although humans are naturally social creatures, the skills of how to appropriately interact is a learned behavior. For example, a small child sees other children playing on a playground and wants to join in. Small children don’t innately know how to engage other children, so he may go up and hit the other child to get his attention. In turn, the child runs away. As a parent, this should be a teachable moment. Explain to him, “If you want someone to play with you, try asking if you can play too.” Practice modeling this behavior with your child and encourage him to try again with the appropriate behavior. You can even practice this at home with a stuffed animal or older sibling.
One important aspect of building relationships is empathy and inclusion, especially at a young age. Helping a child to understand how hurtful excluding someone can be, builds empathy. Children with empathy are less likely to bully others and are more likely to stand up for their peers. Encouraging children to include everyone, even others they may not have a lot in common with, opens children to more diverse friendships and builds greater compassion. Involvement in a variety of social groups, such as extracurricular activities, can also help children expand their social circles.
“Getting kids involved in extracurricular and social activities is a great way to expose children to diverse groups of people,” said Anna Cox, Lead Clinical Therapist with Canopy Children’s Solutions. “Sometimes this requires parents to come out of their comfort zones. Whether you are at the ball field or at a birthday party, the kids are watching, so make it a point to reach out and interact with those around you even if it’s a little uncomfortable. Kids often learn by example.”
As children enter adolescence and the teen years, it becomes increasingly important that you know and build trusting relationships with your child’s friends. You want your child and his or her friends to be open to talking to you in the event that either child is in trouble. Lay out your expectations, but let them know if they are ever in a tough spot, you will be there to support them. The child needs to know they won’t be judged, but also understand that there are consequences for breaking the rules. This is an avenue for open, honest dialogue.
Lastly, it is extremely important to help your child understand healthy conflict. This is the primary reason so many friendships end. Children often think because they are mad or they don’t see eye-to-eye with one another that they can no longer be friends. Teach your child how to calmly talk out their frustration and to give a voice to what is bothering them.
“So much of what children learn about relationships and how to deal with conflict is learned at home,” said Cox. “It is so important that parents model healthy behavior, particularly in conflict, to teach their children how to calmly talk out the problem and work together to find a solution. This skill will go beyond just friendships but can also affect future relationships.”
Preparing your kids to go back to school means more than completing reading lists and gathering school supplies. Teaching them how to build positive relationships will help put them on a path toward lifelong social and emotional success.
Canopy Children’s Solutions (Canopy) offers an array of behavioral health, educational and social services to children and families throughout Mississippi. For more information on the services Canopy offers, please visit mycanopy.org or call 800-388-6247.