Developing relationship skills begins as soon as babies are born. When your baby cries and you respond, the two of you are building a relationship. As they grow, children copy all that they see and experience, including your relationships with them and others. If you have long-term relationships with friends or partners, you are showing your child how to have long-term relationships. The give and take of the parent/child relationship and the relationship their parents model for them are often the two most important influences on developing relationship skills in a child.
A child’s relationships shape the way they see the world. Relationships with parents and other family members or caregivers, offer children a chance to express themselves and also to listen and respond. When a child cries, laughs, or asks a question, and receives a hug, smile, or answer in return, they are learning important information about the world. They are also learning what is and isn’t appropriate behavior. With each interaction, the child is developing critical relationship skills: how to behave; reason; understand; communicate; and display emotions.
Infants cry when they need something: affection, a diaper change, nourishment. When a parent responds in a loving manner, a newborn soon learns that crying is an effective way to communicate needs and feelings. In a short time, the infant becomes attached to the parent. They learn that they can count on the parent to come when called, and to care for their needs. This gives babies a sense of safety and security, which helps them to build a strong relationship with the parent, built on trust.
Feeling Safe and Secure
When children feel safe and secure and have a strong attachment to their parents, they develop the confidence to explore the world and how they fit in. As children grow and explore their surroundings they rack up new experiences that teach them how to think, react, communicate, and socialize. The more experiences your child has—with you alongside to support them—the more your child will bloom and grow.
Your relationships with others are also a critical factor in your child developing relationship skills. If you are kind and polite to others, your child will learn to treat others in the same way. It comes down to the bond children form with their parents in infancy. Children look to their parents as their model for appropriate behavior. How you relate when with others and how you are when alone, are examples your child sees as they are developing relationship skills.
As your child watches you, they are also paying close attention to how others respond to you. If you are respectful and others respond to you the same way, your child will learn to be respectful, and expect others to be respectful toward them. When someone is disrespectful to them, they will know that they are seeing inappropriate behavior because their parents don’t act that way.
Role of Play
Play is another important means for developing relationship skills in children. When children play, they have the opportunity to observe how others behave, and to try out different behaviors themselves. Playing with others also teaches children problem-solving, and how to learn from their mistakes. An encouraging and supportive relationship with the parent helps give the child the confidence to explore and experiment in play, and to view a mistake as a learning experience.
Children need lots of opportunities to talk, listen, and play. Play means active interaction with others. As your child interacts during play, they are learning important life skills, such as communication; critical thinking; and how to relate to those who are different than them. When a parent spends time playing with their child, it sends a message, “You are important to me.”
It’s a message that helps your child understand who they are and how they fit into their world.
Developing Relationship Skills: Three Tips
Here are three important steps you can take toward developing relationship skills in your child:
- Take an interest in your child at all times: If your child is drawing a picture, you might say, “I like that you are drawing the sun in three colors.” If they are playing in a sandbox where there are other children playing, smile at your child to show you are watching them. What your child wants most is your attention. Make the most of it by making it positive attention. This is the kind of attention that builds their self-confidence, so they won’t be afraid to talk to someone at a party, and to pay them positive attention. Most important of all, it shows them an example of how to pay positive attention to others.
- Keep a close connection to your child as you go about your day: Dedicate a lower kitchen cabinet to the baby, and place in it a wooden spoon, tin measuring cups, and some plastic mixing bowls. While you cook, give your child the spoon to play with. Soon, they will try to mimic you as whip up a cake, or grill a steak. Try to set a good example to your child when reacting to a cooking mistake. If you are calm when your cake falls, and you try again another time, you are showing your child how to approach and solve a problem.
- Try to play with your child every day: There may be days when playing with your child is impossible, so forgive yourself when it happens. You are showing them that it is good to try your best and that you still love them. If you can, be in touch; sing to them or send a heart emoji. This too, is play.