By Dr. Ellen Diana, Psychologist & Co-Author of the Charge Up Your Life Book Series
We don’t need or want to become friends with everyone we meet but knowing how to relate to others, when necessary, and when beneficial for us, is a valuable life-long talent. To build healthy relationships, consider using and teaching these four skills.
Making friends part 1: Finding similarities
Parents can help their children to make friends and relate harmoniously by understanding what makes a good relationship. Think of an ambassador, whose job it is to bridge cultures and form alliances. Ambassadors are the masters of relationships and children can learn to be mini-ambassadors in their relationships.
Consider that there are four elements required to form a good relationship, the first of which is to discover basic human similarities. This means seeing that everyone feels happiness, sadness, anger, and fear; desires love, joy, and success; and avoids pain whenever possible.
To practice this, parents can ask their children to discover one way they are like every other child they know. For example, Jack and Susan might share a love of reading, while Jack and Carey share a love of soccer. Both Jack and Leah might have two sisters while Jack and Trent might come from single-parent homes. Each of these similarities can generate a conversation, about books or sports, or what it’s like to have siblings, or live in a home with one parent. This first element is about finding something in everyone to relate to. It doesn’t mean that any of these children will necessarily become Jack’s good friend, but it allows Jack to feel comfortable in the company of any one of these children and to relate to them harmoniously.
Also, seeing similarities is important since it is the basis of conscience: if I hurt someone, they feel pain just as I would under similar circumstances. Conscience causes children to step away from their egocentric viewpoint and see situations from the perspective of another: how would I feel if this happened to me?
To apply this, parents can encourage their children to adopt social perspective to understand how other children feel. For example, how would they feel if they were left out of the games at recess, or if they didn’t feel welcome at the table eating lunch, or if they were laughed at when they gave a wrong answer in class? Parents can discuss with their children how to respond in ways that show this understanding.
Children feel safer and less anxious when they see other children as being similar to them. They are more inclined to interact with empathy and compassion and are less inclined to be contentious and unkind. Finding similarities is a way to generate harmony, one skill of a mini-ambassador.
Making friends part 2: Recognizing differences
Each person is unique in their own way. This means that, although people have much in common, everything that a person thinks, feels, and does is interpreted by their own personal filter, which is different from anyone else’s filter. Each person sees the world in their own special way.
Differences in physical characteristics, race, religion, culture, family background, age, gender, opinions, traits, likes and dislikes have the potential of creating conflict and defensiveness if a person feels threatened or criticized by these differences. But differences can also invite curiosity when the person is intrigued by them and wants to know more about the other person. Either reaction, conflict or curiosity, is entirely the choice of the individuals involved.
Making room for differences starts at the level of the family. For example, people are often surprised when siblings raised in the same home develop as distinct individuals. Some children are like their parents and others are different. This is because each child is unique, and healthy parenting involves nurturing each child’s differences as well as their similarities to other family members.
What children learn about making room for differences in their families extends out into society in their social relationships with friends and classmates. The more children are able to recognize and appreciate differences in others the more they will be able to forge new relationships. When children recognize similarities as well as differences, they view individuals as whole people, and their lives and their social skills are enriched by the relationships that they form.
Making friends part 3: Interacting diplomatically
Diplomacy involves making mental, physical, and emotional contact. The easiest way to teach children about making physical contact is to encourage eye contact when speaking. Eye contact communicates that the listener is paying attention to the speaker. When there is no eye contact, the speaker doesn’t feel heard and doesn’t feel valued. Mental contact means truly being curious about what the other person is saying. To teach this type of contact, practice asking questions, back and forth, when family members are speaking to one another, perhaps during meals when conversation is about each family member’s day and perhaps even about events that one member or the other has heard about and wants to share. It’s part of the art of conversation – listening, and questioning, in order to understand more fully what the speaker is sharing. Once again, it communicates that the listener really values the speaker and what is being said. Finally, emotional contact is about trying to feel what the speaker is feeling. There’s no place for sarcasm, criticism, or ridicule when a listener is trying to make emotional contact. When any of these three are used, someone is being victimized and identified as the loser. Remember, that diplomacy means each person, speaker and listener, are winners and being diplomatic puts each person in a win-win, not a win-lose, situation. Practice with children by asking about feelings and what they imagine people feel when they speak and share stories about themselves or their day. This skill fosters empathy which is an important skill in building friendships and relating to all types of people.
Practicing these simple communication skills: making physical, mental, and emotional contact, helps children to develop social skills, an important ingredient of success in life.
Making friends part 4: Establishing trust in relationships
Relationships that are deep, long-lasting, and meaningful have trust at their foundation. Trust is firmly established in a relationships when children: 1) avoid mind reading by checking out what they think: 2) accept people as they are, and don’t judge or criticize; 3) make everybody in the group a winner by recognizing everyone’s contribution; and 4) avoid keeping score, such as who selected the game to play more often. By following these tips, children will establish more meaningful and long-lasting relationships.
Questions about trust come up when children share information about themselves or their lives. When children decide whether to speak truthfully, they ask, “Will this person accept me as I am?” and “Can I trust this person, if I make my authentic self visible, and if I let myself feel vulnerable?” For instance, if a friend only wants your child to agree with her, how authentic and real can their interactions be? Also, if your child feels criticized how much will your child enjoy being with this friend? Children censor their words when they don’t feel comfortable being with the other person. They are on guard.
To teach children this concept, assess their friendships by discussing how comfortable they are with each of their friends. The goal is to trust friends and understanding how this occurs is key in determining whether friendships have trust at their foundation, or not. When children have healthy self-esteem they surround themselves with friends who value and appreciate them just as they are. Through friendships children develop social skills which they will use throughout their lives. If they feel victimized in their friendships in childhood, they will carry this into their adolescent and adult relationships. Learning how to get along with everyone as a child is a valuable, life-long skill.
Regarding relationships, parents have three jobs: one, to form healthy relationships for themselves; two, to model having healthy relationships, and; three, to directly teach how to form healthy friendships to their children. Use these four tips to build, model, and teach how to have healthy relationships.
About the Author:
Ellen Diana is a licensed psychologist, co-author of the Charge up Your Life Book Series and
certified school psychologist with 30 years’ experience working with
children, adults, couples, and families in schools and in private
practice in Phoenix, Arizona. She has published a number of articles in
scholarly journals on psychology and education, and co-authored five
self-help books in the Charge Up Your Life series. Helping women to
evolve into their best selves through personal growth and self-awareness
is a passion of hers. Ellen raised three successful children as a
single parent and so has special interests in mentoring other women in
transition and helping parents to raise resilient children. Contact
Ellen at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website