With 18 years of experience in education under his belt, and having founded Little Scholars, a string of nine childcare centres in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, there are few people better equipped to comment on childhood friendships than Jae Fraser – he sees them every day.
“Cultivating healthy emotional and social skills in children goes beyond simply ensuring they have friends to interact with; these attributes will continue to benefit them throughout their whole lives,” says Jae. “Sharing and understanding each others’ feelings, how your actions have impacts on others and how to come to mutual conflict resolutions are essential to building quality relationships, and the foundations of these skills are first developed between the ages of three and five.”
As parents, cultivating and encouraging these skills in our children can be a complex process. Where behaviours like aggression and anger are normal parts of childhood development, extreme displays in more than one setting could signify a difficulty to transition into school and engage in the learning process down the track.
“Shaming children for expressing emotions can lead to complications in how they relate down the track, so the key is to focus on being consistent in instilling healthy coping mechanisms and skills,” says Jae. “Where possible, focus on things like movement to release aggression, or help them identify and name the feelings with words.”
Children have fewer social and emotional skills, says Jae, which places them at risk for peer rejection. Their negative behaviour can impact their ability to have positive relationships with their teachers, which can in turn lead to poor engagement, undermine their academic achievement and become an added risk factor for future maladaptation. It’s a vicious cycle.
“Notice problems when they are small, before they reach the explosion point, and work together with other staff, parents, and, if possible, your child to make a plan for stopping trouble sooner rather than later,” says Jae. “Use your awareness to notice potential danger signals and intervene by redirecting your child firmly and kindly into a different activity whenever possible.”
Instead of lecturing your child about what they mustn’t do and why, focus on what they can do by offering acceptable choices with enthusiasm.
In primary school
Heading off to ‘big school’ can be a big adjustment for children, particularly those who struggle to maintain positive relationships with their peers and teachers.
Jae explains that as your children go through this transition, their definition of a ‘friend’ moves from ‘momentary’ – where it’s all about just having fun – to ‘one-way’ and eventually ‘two-way’ – wherein they recognise that a friendship goes beyond the current activity and see it as a fair exchange of being nice.
“Regularly checking in with your little one to talk about their friends is the best way to encourage awareness of quality friendships,” says Jae.
What’s more, it’s important to keep in mind that as a parent or carer, you are their first teacher when it comes to healthy and meaningful relationships – it’s important to be aware of what you and those around you are modelling.
“An essential step is setting a clear example for acknowledging and apologising when you’ve upset someone,” says Jae. “Teaching children to recognise the signs of hurt feelings, such as tears or leaving the room, helps build their sense of compassion. Likewise, guide your children to speak up when they feel hurt so that it’s easier for others to understand what they’re going through.”
In the tween/teen years
As your kids get closer to 12 years of age, you’ll notice they become quite judgemental of both others and themselves. You’ll hear more statements like ‘No one will like me if I don’t have those shoes’ and ‘I can’t believe you’re wearing that,’ and it’s these off-hand remarks that can create friction between your tween or teen and their friends and loved ones.
“At this age, your child expects reciprocation, and if this doesn’t happen the friendship often breaks down,” says Jae. “Validate their feelings, but also guide your child to consider how the situation appears from the other’s perspective and the factors that could have led to their action/inaction.”
If you are worried that your child’s bad behaviour is more persistent and could be negatively impacting their friends or classmates, Jae says it’s best to be proactive.
“We know that bullying is often a result of something deeper going on, whether that be at home or even having been on the receiving end of bullying in the past,” says Jae. “Be proactive in checking in with your child after any arguments or issues that arise; children often process things in a self-orientated manner and could be internalising conflict, which then spills out in their relations with others.
“Ensure they know you still love them even when you’re disappointed/angry at how they’ve behaved. A good way to enforce this is to focus on their actions or specific behaviour when disciplining, rather than them personally.”
Whilst role modelling is definitely still a key factor at all stages of children’s development, Jae explains that the teenage years are more about giving your child space to experience the cause and effect of their behaviour whilst ensuring they feel safe and shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help when they need it.
“Finally, if you feel that your child’s behaviour is beyond your ability to manage or that there is no improvement after you step in – no matter how old they are – engage support from school counsellors, your Early Childhood Teacher and other support agencies,” says Jae. “As a parent remember that problems should not be secrets and to keep asking until you get the help you and your child needs.”