Healthy Relationships and Children
Children begin to learn about interpersonal relationships as early as infancy. It begins with understanding the roles their caretakers play in their lives. As they grow up, children’s knowledge of social interactions grows, and they take mental notes from their environment on ways to build their own connections. How can parents and guardians help them develop the skills needed to have healthy relationships? Let’s explore this question, as well as discuss some useful strategies and considerations.
Defining Healthy Relationships
A relationship is a dynamic between two or more people; it can be romantic, friendly, professional, parental, etc. A healthy relationship allows room for empathy, education, exploration, warmth, kindness, free expression, mutual respect, consistency, and commitment. Individuals in a healthy relationship do not need to fear harsh judgment or punishment from the other person(s). They can expect transparency, fairness, comfort, and support.
Having healthy relationships is incredibly important for a person’s self-esteem and overall mental health. Humans are social creatures, and we often rely on each other emotionally to thrive. A strong support network of friends, family, and loved ones sets a child up for success in all other areas of life.
Learning About Relationships
Relationships can sometimes be difficult, and building healthy relationships is not a natural skill for everyone. What a child learns in their formative years will lay a foundation for their understanding of relationships throughout their life.
Children learn about relationships with every social interaction they witness. These can be virtual or in-person – television shows, YouTube videos, family gatherings, parental behavior, sibling behavior, classroom procedures, etc. Social interactions can even be found in literature and music. Think about the childhood song “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage!” These innocent lines can signal expectations for adult relationship paths.
Strategies for Teaching About Relationships
So, what are some concrete ways that adults can help kids develop an understanding of healthy relationships? Let’s examine some strategies!
Children often learn by copying and practicing an observed act or dynamic. Even simple social actions, such as waving hello, smiling, waiting to speak, etc., can be taught by modeling. On the flip side, more negative behaviors like frowning, shouting, or interrupting others when they speak set the same example for a child. The older a child gets, the more they will be able to comprehend and process complex social interactions and relationships. So, whether you are holding the door open for a grandparent, showing empathy and support to a struggling partner, apologizing when you are wrong, or calling to check on a friend, your child will likely see these interactions and want to mimic them.
As you model positive relationship traits with the people in your life, make sure to engage in meaningful conversations with your child about the reasoning behind your actions. (I.e., “Did you notice that I hugged your sibling extra hard this morning? This is because I know they are nervous about a test, and I wanted to encourage them.”) This practice helps children learn the connection between positive intention and respective action.
Consistency and Reliability
Your relationship with your child is likely the most important example of a relationship that your kiddo experiences. So, make sure that the parental interactions they’re exposed to are healthy and positive. Simply being reliable and warm can make all the difference, teaching the child what a healthy relationship is supposed to feel like. Being consistent in showing up for them teaches them to expect healthy and positive interactions in all their other relationships in the future.
Engaging your child in conversations about interactions they observe in the world is another great way to teach them about healthy relationships. For example, if you are at the park, you can point out the way other kids are playing together and ask, “Did you notice that little girl push her friend? How did the friend react? What do you think about their friendship?” Identifying examples of healthy and toxic relationships and discussing them openly with your child helps them process these observations and apply them to their own understanding of relationships.
Of course, a great opportunity for learning about relationships is appropriately chosen media. Movies, books, TV shows, animations, online videos, news segments, and social media engagement can be used to discuss healthy relationships with children. The great thing about fictional or edited narratives is that they are usually simpler and less personal than real-life situations, making them easier to talk about. If you are concerned about selecting appropriate content for your child, make sure to check out tools such as parental controls and Common Sense Media to guide your decisions.
Observe and Support
As children get older, they will find stronger relationships outside of the home. It is then important to be vigilant and look for signs of trouble in the connections they make independently. If you notice a teen start to exhibit physical or verbal aggression, personality changes, school avoidance, or extreme shyness, these might be signs that they are involved in a social interaction – romantic or platonic – that is unhealthy. This is yet another opportunity to help them learn more about healthy relationships through open conversation and parental support.
If you or a family member needs behavioral and/or mental health treatment, but aren’t sure where to start, read more here or call 888-764-4161. We’re here to support!
About the Expert
Ruth Ramos-Hernandez is a bilingual Licensed Mental Health Counselor with PM Behavioral Health. She has 8 years of experience in helping patients with depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and conduct disorders. Previously, Ruth completed her studies at City University of New York, receiving a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Psychology with a minor in Women’s Gender Studies. In her work, Ruth draws on her background in behavioral orientations (CBT/DBT/structural family therapy), using a strength-based and collaborative approach to help patients feel empowered and equipped to navigate life’s curveballs.