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Developing healthy relationships

Children learn about relationships from the moment they are born. They learn from how they are touched, held, cared for and spoken to. They also learn by watching people around them and how they relate to each other.

As they get older, children’s relationships become more complex and expand outside their family circle. Their understanding of how people relate to each other is influenced by what happens in their childminder’s home, in their crèche, at school and in their friendship groups. It is also influenced by what they see on TV, the internet and on social media.

Modelling heathy relationships within the family

To help your child to build healthy relationships, you have to model them. Here are some things to consider:

Show your love

It may seem obvious but it’s worth emphasising that a child will learn how to love through the love they are given. Saying ‘I love you’ is important, as is showing love through your actions.

This can be done in many ways including:

  • creating a warm, loving and accepting environment and being ready with appropriate emotional and practical support when they need it
  • having appropriate, positive and consensual physical contact with the child, e.g. hugging and kissing

Set aside time for your child

Children need focussed attention to help them feel secure and valued.

  • Get into the habit of setting aside protected time for your child. That means turning off the television, laptop, phone etc. and just being with them and listening.
  • Give attention while involving children in the family’s daily routines, such as when preparing and eating a meal, or while sharing leisure time through playing games, playing sport or working on a hobby.
  • If you get into the habit of protected time with a young child, it will also make communication with them easier during the teenage years. Children need to know you are really listening or they will stop communicating.

Show your respect for your child

Treat your child as you would have them treat you.

  • Listen to what they have to say.
  • Talk to them.
  • Empathise with their daily trials and tribulations.
  • Respect their need for privacy.

Praise

Show how you notice and appreciate your child’s endeavours by offering them sincere praise, which is appropriate to their age and stage of development.

Praise their efforts, even more so than their achievements, and be precise about what was good, e.g. “well done for sticking with that difficult sum until you worked it out”.

In this way your child will learn that there is merit in more then just success.

Try to avoid associating their value as a person with their activity or behaviour, e.g. “You’re a good boy for tying your lace” or “You’re a bold girl for not tidying your toys”.

Avoid shaming your child

Resist the urge to tell that funny story or otherwise comment on your child’s difficulties or sensitivities in social situations. For instance, don’t tell others that they have a crush on someone or that they wet the bed. This could embarrass your child and may impact on their self-esteem. Even though it wasn’t what you intended, being publicly shamed can feel like a betrayal to a child.

Be consistent

Children thrive on consistency.

  • Avoid being rigid for the sake of it but be clear on your boundaries and stick to them.
  • For your children’s emotional development, parent with love and limits so that your child can develop their own healthy boundaries.

Be fair

Don’t single out one child for more favourable treatment than the others.

If there is good reason for different treatment, make sure that you explain this to your children rather than letting them assume that you love one child more than another. 

Be aware of stereotyping along traditional gender lines, as this might limit your child. Avoid saying things like: “Boys don’t cry”, “Boys are tough”, “Boys do outside tasks” or “Girls are caring”, “Girls don’t play with trucks”, “Girls do household tasks”.

Model coping skills and resilience

How do you deal with a problem when you are faced with one?

  • Do you lash out, blame others, avoid it, take substances etc.? Or, do you face up to things, accept your role in the situation and look for solutions to deal with the issue?
  • Observing healthy ways of dealing with difficulty will help your child develop resilience (the ability to keep trying when in difficulty and to seek help when needed). This will support them to hold on to feelings of self-worth even when things are not going well.
  • Children will learn from your behaviour and how you deal with things. How often do you hear your parent’s words as you talk with your child? This is learning that has stayed with you from childhood and seeps out subconsciously. It will be the same for your child.

Model giving and respecting consent

Demonstrate the importance of asking for appropriate consent in everyday interactions. There are lots of situations where you can practise this, e.g. asking people’s permission before you take photos or post them online etc. Also, enable your child to make age appropriate choices for themselves and respect their decisions.

Developing healthy friendships

Children generally make friends throughout their childhood. It’s a part of their healthy development.

Like us, our children will often bond with people who have similar interests and hobbies. Some friendships will last, while others will be fleeting.

Every friendship will have its ups and downs and these are life lessons that children need to learn. Resist the urge to interfere.

You can’t make friends for your child, but, in the early years, you can provide opportunities for them to interact with other children and help them to develop the necessary social skills.

Developing skills to make friendships

If your child needs a bit of help in forming friendships, encourage them to practise.

  • Greetings – The first step to any friendship is a simple greeting. Help them realise that a smile can be a useful ice-breaker and to practise simple phrases like: “Hi,” “Would you like to play with me?” and “What’s your name?” 
  • Responses – The second step is a response to another child’s greeting. Help them practise phrases like: “I would like to play”, “What are you playing?“, “My name is...”, “Thank you”.
  • Sharing and taking turns – Encourage them to share toys and food. Play games with them that involve taking turns and being patient. 
  • Showing kindness – Encourage them to do nice things for others, to speak to others in a friendly, pleasant way.
  • Being respectful – Encourage them to treat others as they would like to be treated.
  • Standing up for themselves – Let them know that it’s OK to ask for their rights and that they must also accept the rights of others, e.g. taking turns and allowing others’ their turn. Also, your child needs to know that there are times when it’s good for children to fit in and times when it’s good for children to stand apart from the crowd, especially if they are unhappy with the behaviours or games that are going on. Tell them it’s OK to say: “No”, ”I don’t like that”, “I’m not playing that game”. 
  • Finding common ground with other children – Help them to find children who share some of their interests. Children with similar interests and hobbies are more likely to be friends.