Building Healthy Relationships in Childhood

Healthy Choices is our freshest series featuring lifestyle tips from Altru’s wellness experts. This resource is designed to guide your healthy path in 2013. Here’s a guest post from Altru psychiatrist, Dr. Ellen Feldman.

“She won’t play with me!”
“You’re not my friend anymore!”
“He broke up with me …by text!”

Familiar? Tears, rejection and hurt feelings follow and awaken protective parenting instincts. We want to help!

We hope our children and teens will seek positive relationships: a key to emotional health. The ability to maintain healthy relationships requires a skill set. It’s not just the flip side of guarding against bad relationships.

On this upcoming Valentine’s Day, take a few moments to discuss what healthy relationships mean. It is a gift that will remain with your child long after the chocolate hearts and paper dollies.

Building Blocks of Healthy Relationships | Ages and Stages

Birth to Toddler
TASK: Develop healthy attachments

Relationships? Really, at this age? Don’t babies just eat, sleep, cry… and eat again!?

While these are important in development, so is the ability to attach and trust. At this stage, relationships are one-sided—the baby demands and the adult answers. As adults respond to the needs of an infant, attachments form. Consistent and nurturing caregivers help the infant develop a strong sense of trust and predictability. This allows a reciprocated relationship to develop.

Being on the giving end can be tough. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and alone when caring for a baby; don’t let it get you down. Call on family, friends or your health care professional. Look for other parents and try to form connections.

(Continued reading. Check out the podcasts!)

Preschool to Elementary
TASK: Develop empathy

Peer friendships develop. Teachers become important. Some children find it easy to navigate the social world; most need assistance in some area. This is the time to teach positive relationship building.

  1. Help your child recognize and understand his or her feelings. Don’t tell a child what to feel, instead identify emotions as they arise. Find opportunities to recognize feelings as you read stories or watch movies. Help your child understand emotions come in groups. Anger, hurt, happiness and jealousy may emerge side-by-side or interwoven.
  2. Next help them understand other’s feelings – a key to healthy relationships. This is the age to help children realize the impact their actions have on others.

The most significant lessons come from experience. Children learn from seeing how adults handle strong emotions. A child may witness adults acting poorly. Acknowledge poor judgment and allow your child to recognize the road to emotional control can be rocky. Voicing the impact your actions have on your child’s feelings is a lesson in itself.

(Continued reading. I loved this magazine when my own children were young.)

Middle School
TASK: Clarify values

Peer influences grow. Our own middle school social experiences haunt us. We don’t want our kids to go through what we did.

Keep a clear head and go back to basics. Remind yourself that this is your child’s world and experiences. Continue to identify emotions and help your child know how actions impact others. Be loud and proud of your child when he or she stands up for a friend or helps out a peer; make this as important as making the honor roll or being the high scorer on a team.

Clarify your values with your child and ask where he or she stands. Help your young teen think about the values others demonstrate. Set limits that align with your values and explain why. Maintain the limits.

Navigate the internet with your teen. Check out what he or she is posting on social networking sites and discuss implications. Set rules, but take into consideration the values your teen has voiced. Re-evaluate frequently.

(Continued reading.)

High School
TASK: Pull it all together and practice

No one knows more or less about relationships than a typical high school student. One moment an expert, next moment lost and floundering. It’s a wonder any of us were able to navigate the highs and lows of this hormone-fueled period.

The contradictory nature of this age is confusing to teens and adults alike. Building relationships outside the home is important to satisfy the drive toward independence. Yet, even the most independent teens appreciate guidance (although most won’t admit it!).

This is the age to strengthen skills. Active, non-judgmental listening goes a long way. Try not to get caught in power struggles; continue to set appropriate limits.

Help your teen identify what he or she wants in a relationship. Keep in mind trust, empathy and clarifying values. Remind your teen of the same.

Some tips to keep conversations alive:
1. Don’t criticize (nod and say “oh” to buy time).
2. Be curious.
3. Accept that your teen may hold a different view.
4. Maintain your own values and rules.

Easier said than done?

Nothing is guaranteed, especially in the fickle world of human relationships. What works for one child and family may not for another. The ideas here are meant to serve as a framework as children grow.

Parents, what are your tried and tested strategies for raising kids to be kind adults? Share your ideas.

Dr. Ellen Feldman is an Altru psychiatrist focused on the holistic treatment of mental illness and emotional disorders in children, teens and young adults. She has been affiliated with Altru since 1998 and currently serves as department chair. Additionally, she is a consultant to the University of North Dakota Student Health Center and the medical director of Ruth Meiers Adolescent Treatment Center.

Looking for a lifestyle change for their young family, Dr. Feldman and her husband came to Grand Forks from the East Coast in 1994 with four children, ages six months to 10 years. Nearly 20 years later, they’re still here. In her free time, Dr. Feldman enjoys writing, reading, gardening, traveling and biking.

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