As a child and family-focused clinician serving the Shanghai community, the spring season is by far my busiest time of the year for a variety of reasons. For starters, the majority of national holidays and school breaks have passed, and parents who were considering therapy for their children at some point throughout the school year now feel ready to begin the process. In addition, school teachers and administrators are able to identify more clearly which students with academic and/or behavioral challenges they can manage within the school setting, versus those that would benefit from the additional support of an outside treatment provider. Recently, many of the referrals I have received involve children who are experiencing prolonged challenges with initiating and maintaining positive relationships with others, while also struggling to resolve the disruptions that tend to occur in those relationships. As one can imagine, this often leads to a detrimental impact on a child’s sense of self-worth and regard for school as a safe and welcoming environment.
So, what can we do as parents and supportive adults to help our children manage the inevitable challenges that come with making and maintaining a consistent and reliable group of friends?
What the research says
Time and again, research has indicated how a child’s ability to tolerate frustrations and navigate disruptions that can occur in peer relationships originates within the home environment.
In a 2013 longitudinal study on the evolution of children’s social competency from infancy to adolescence, developmental neuroscience expert Dr. Ruth Feldman and her colleagues derived this finding. One of the strongest predictors of a child’s ability to demonstrate social capabilities, to exercise conflict resolution strategies and to minimize aggressive, acting out behavior in social exchanges was the frequency and quality of interpersonal relationships with caring and attentive adults in the infancy and toddler years. In other words, there is a direct correlation between the success with which your child is able to manage conflicts and ruptures in their relationships beyond the home, and the quality of your relationship as a parent to your child from infancy and throughout the childhood years.
With this in mind, I have developed three tips for helping children manage their social relationships.
1. Validate the feeling while modifying the approach.
I always make it a point to remind parents and children alike, that our feelings are never wrong; it’s what we choose to do with them that makes all the difference. Teach your child that it’s okay to feel angry, sad or upset after a disagreement with a friend, and then brainstorm with them the language they could use to communicate those feelings in a manner that does not further escalate the situation. For example, “When we argued, it made me feel sad because our friendship is important to me.”
2. Model healthy conflict resolution for your child.
I will often encourage parents to conduct themselves, whether at home or in the workplace, as if their child is watching their every move. As research suggests, there is no model more important than a parent to demonstrate how to effectively manage disputes and repair ruptures to interpersonal relationships.
3. Help facilitate a discussion to restore the relationship.
An effective strategy that I see frequently utilized in the international schools here in Shanghai is requesting a counselor to host a ‘restorative chat,’ to help resolve a dispute that has occurred among friends. With the assistance of a supportive adult to help facilitate the discussion, children are encouraged to take ownership of their actions, validate one another’s feelings and work cooperatively to arrive at a peaceful resolution to the problem at hand.
Dr. Balfanz is the Senior Clinical Psychologist at American Medical Center, a comprehensive medical and mental health service clinic for children, adolescents, adults and families living in Shanghai. For more information on clinic services, contact Dr. Balfanz at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at: www.drnatebalfanz.com