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Helping Children Navigate Social Relationships & Strong Emotions

Fri, 09/23/2022 - 11:18

Families, Inc. therapist Dr. Dana Watson has been featured regularly on KFIN’s Breakfast Club to discuss maintaining a healthy mindset. The following is a transcript of a recent interview with KFIN's Breakfast Club's Brandon Baxter discussing how to help children navigate social relationships and strong emotions. 


Q: Before we talk about big emotions, let’s talk a little about how parents can help their children navigate social relationships.

First and foremost, be a great model for your child. As children develop, they learn what to do (and not do) from the friendships they observe. If your child grows up seeing a parent or parents in constant conflict with other adults, they are going to learn that this is how we speak to others when we’re mad, this is how we behave when we feel hurt.

There’s a saying that “attitudes are caught, not taught.” Children can ‘catch’ how to relate to others from the friendships they observe. For younger children, this might mean watching the adults around them interact. 

As kids grow, they begin to identify the qualities they like in a friend and seek out friends with these characteristics and behaviors. Caregivers play an important role in helping children understand appropriate and supportive behavior in friendships by modeling their own healthy friendships. For example, perhaps you’ve made a meal or mowed a yard for a friend who’s ill. Showing your child how you care for your own friends is a great way to start conversations about caring for theirs. 

Q: What if your child has problems or a conflict with another child?  How do we help them when this happens?

Ugh. As parents it can be difficult to see our children unhappy or hurt because of social situations. Maybe you remember a time when you were your child’s age and you had similar difficulties making or keeping friends. Sharing these stories with your child can show them that challenges in friendships are normal - and that you can be a support during hard times.

If your child has a tough argument with a friend, offer to talk about the issue together and listen to understand what has happened. Talking through what happened can help children navigate tricky situations with friends in the future. Let them know they can disagree and still be friends.

Q: It can be hard to see your child experience the ups and downs of friendship. 

So hard! But the friendships your child has in their younger years will prepare them for the more complex friendships they may have in the future. Your support and these conversations can really impact the health of their friendships and relationships in the future.

Q: We talked a little last week about after-school meltdowns and how both adults and children need some time to decompress after a long day. How should we help our kids cope if they get emotional when they come home from school?

Going to school can be completely exhausting for a lot of kids. The school day can be physically, emotionally and mentally draining. Young children expend a lot of energy sitting still and focusing in class. They have rules to follow, work to complete and responsibilities to fulfill. Many of them lack sufficient time to play, run and regroup throughout the day. By the time they get home from school, they are quick to fall apart. 

The bad news is that kids tend to save their most difficult behavior for their parents. The silver lining is that they trust us to help them through those trying moments and to love them anyway. The good news in all of this is that we can make simple changes to help kids cope with the overwhelming emotions that often settle in once the day is done. 

Q: That is really good news. I’ve never thought about it like “my kid feels safe enough and trusts me enough to fall apart when they get home.”

Yep. So when they’re emotional, you can leave the questions about school for later. Even though we are eager to hear everything that happened, they may not feel like giving the blow by blows immediately upon arrival. Just think about how some days are for us as adults. There are happy days where we can’t wait to come home and share and then there are the days we just want to come home, put on our pajamas and be quiet. And then, of course, there are the real lunatics that decompress in super healthy ways like exercising. LOL I’m just kidding. I’d rather eat a cupcake.

A simple greeting and a hug or high-five are great ways to connect and provide emotional space from the school day. “I’ve been waiting all day to see you!” is how I greet my kids. They love to think about me thinking about them during my workday. 

Q: So try to prioritize a little bit of downtime? 

We have a rule of only one after-school activity at a time to avoid over scheduling and to allow for family time and downtime. Most days we can squeeze in an hour of my son running around outside and my daughter reading or listening to her Taylor Swift CD before we jump into homework, dinner and baths. 
It’s such a pleasure to offer their little minds and bodies some unstructured time so they can unwind after a long day of structure.

Q: And I know you are going to say how important quality time is with our children, which means putting our phones down and being present. 

Please, remember to be present. The best way to reconnect with our kids is to be present when they are in our presence. This means putting our phone down and observing them and helping them readjust to being at home. 

Make eye contact. Listen with intent. Let your child speak without attempting to fix any identified problems. Often, children need someone to listen while they work through their feelings and problem-solve out loud.

Have a snack and play together. Getting them hydrated and with a bit of food in their bellies can help ease kids out of the overwhelming feelings that build up by the end of the day. I also recommend playing a board game or working on a puzzle quietly to bring them into a calmer state of mind. As a bonus, this can help prepare them to ease into conversations about the day.  

Q: You mentioned homework. It looks like some families do it right after school, some after dinner, some before bed. Is there a best time to put homework into the routine?

The best way is to have a routine, period. After the down time, whether you go straight into homework or dinner is up to you. The two things that really matter are consistency and what works best for your child. 
Consistency helps to cut down negotiations since the plan stays the same. They know what to expect and it’s not chaotic for them.

Q: *Whew* School can really be a lot for kids to navigate and it’s a lot for parents, too. It seems we sure do expect a lot academically from kids now.

We expect a lot academically, but also emotionally. I think we should explicitly remind ourselves and our children that most days, with a solid routine, you can accomplish what needs to get done. However, we should also realize that some days you just can’t get everything in. 

And that’s okay. We’re human and we have limitations. You can write a note to your child’s teacher explaining the situation if needed - or maybe recognize that the best decision is for everyone to go to bed and wake up early to finish in the morning.  

In the end, you are responsible for loving your child and teaching them to love themselves. We have to offer them grace so that they’ll know how to be kind to themselves and to others as they move through life. 

Q: How about at the end of the day when your child comes home? I remember when I was younger, I would come home exhausted and also pretty cranky. It took me a while to decompress.

Oh, I feel the same way as an adult. We need time to decompress, so we should anticipate that our kids do, too. Children are basically asked to hold in their emotions all day. I mean, we spend years helping them develop strategies to manage their emotions and behavior! 

But undoubtedly at least one thing happens every day that makes them feel worried, sad, or confused – and those big feelings will often come spilling out once they reach the safety of their home. 

We can help them decompress by creating a predictable after school routine, including a snack and some downtime. And when your child does have a meltdown, stay close and stay calm so after they relax you can help them work through the emotions behind it.

Q: What if parents have concerns about how their child is doing - emotionally and academically? Like if something just doesn’t seem right. What is the first step they should take?

Parents with concerns can contact the mental health provider in their child’s school (or Families, Inc!). They can offer an evaluation of your child’s functioning and work with you to find strategies that will benefit your child and your family.


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