Navigating Difficult Relationships

Written by Rachel Ealy, M.Ed., LPC-Intern


Now that the school year is underway and the first day nerves are wearing off, your child is meeting new peers, making new friends, and seeing friends that they didn’t see all summer. Sometimes meeting new people goes just like we want it to. Whether your child makes friends with another child based on common interests or simply because they are in the same class and gravitate toward one another, both children begin to feel comfortable and safe around one another. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes our children come home complaining about another child being mean. As frustrating and hard as this is to hear, dealing with difficult people is an important lesson to learn and skill to have. This makes navigating difficult relationships in adulthood a lot easier. I hesitate to use the word ‘easy’ when discussing this topic, because navigating difficult relationships is never easy, however, if you coach your child how to navigate difficult relationships, they will have the skills to do it on their own later in life.


STEP 1: Remember, this is your child’s journey through life. As much as you want to take away this difficulty for them by giving them “the right answer” or telling them to tell the other child “I’m not going to play with you anymore,” this is not what will help them learn to navigate these types of interactions. Parents – remember to give your child time and space to work through these issues, while modeling calm behavior. When your child is telling you about a child being mean to them, refrain from becoming visually upset. Make sure you pay attention to your nonverbal communication, including your body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Instead, coach your child to identify how this makes them feel and then brainstorm solutions together.


STEP 2: Who/what can we control? Discuss with your child who we can control and what we can control. If your child says ‘myself,’ ding, ding, ding, correct! Let your child know that this is exactly right. If your child says anything but myself, ask them follow up questions. Can you force ‘so-and-so’ to do anything’ or could ‘so-and-so’ force you to do anything. Try to let them come to the conclusion that we are only able to control ourselves. Once they have arrived at this conclusion, ask them what we can control about ourselves. See if they can come up with similar things to our actions, thoughts, behaviors, and how we react to others. We CHOOSE these things. We choose how we react to other’s behavior. We do not always know why others choose to be mean to us, but we can choose how we react to them. Some appropriate reactions are asking the other child to please stop, walking away, ignoring, and getting help from an adult.


STEP 3: Talk with your child about what it means to be a good friend. Ask your child what they want in a friend. Get their perspective and work from there. Some things that you can add to their definition are: someone who uses kind language, is honest, is trustworthy, has good listening skills, is caring, is accepting and respectful– even when you have different thoughts, ideas, physical traits, etc., and someone who is supportive. You may need to explain these further, depending on your child’s age. Check in with them to see if they know what these terms mean. Ask them to describe what a term, such as honest, looks like. You can even roll-play scenarios with your child that demonstrates these traits. For example, for the characteristic of supportive, you can have your child pretend that they are telling you (their friend) about getting a 100 on their spelling test. You can pretend that you did not do as well, however even though you did not do as well, you can be supportive by congratulating them. You can demonstrate the opposite situation as well, such as pouting, saying that you do not want to be friends anymore, or getting annoyed and saying that they are bragging about their grade. Ask your child what each scenario feels like for them. Foster perspective taking by asking what they think their friend is feeling in each scenario. Remember – it all starts with self-esteem. When children have good self-esteem and a strong sense of self-worth they are sure of themselves, proud of their accomplishments, able to recognize their strengths, and learn from their mistakes. They understand that everyone has value, including themselves. When your child has good self-esteem they will not feel like they need to be friends with those that are not respectful to them, however they will understand that this person still has value and choosing to be mean in response is not how to handle the situation. Help your child build self-esteem by recognizing their strengths, praising effort – not achievement, letting them make choices – and learn from mistakes, celebrating successes and failures, and listening to them.


Step 4: Coach your child to identify the size of the problem. For more on this topic, refer to my blog on identifying the size of the problem in order to help them know what an appropriate reaction is. The size of the reaction should be equal to or smaller than the size of the problem.


Step 5: Teach your child about impulse control. An impulse is an urge to act first before thinking. Impulse control involves thinking about the consequences of our actions before acting. It’s easy to react when feelings are hurt and your child is dealing with difficult emotions. Coach your child to practice a coping skill such as deep breathing or counting to 10 in order to calm their body down first. In session, I help my clients begin to learn impulse control by having them draw and color a traffic light. Red means stop what you are doing, yellow means think about the consequences, and green means go and make the expected choice. I like doing this with my clients because it is hands-on and gives them something to visualize when navigating difficult situations.


Step 6: Use books to help teach your child important skills such as being a good friend and navigating difficult relationships. The following is a list of books with recommended age ranges.

1)    The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (ages 3-5)

2)    The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc (ages 4-6)

3)    Llama Llama and the Bully Goat by Anna Dewdney (ages 2-5)

4)    Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig (ages 6-9)

5)    Sorry! by Trudy Ludwig (ages 6-9)

6)    The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister (ages 3-10)

7)    Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel (ages 4-8)