Healthy Relationships: The Cornerstone of Gratefulness
“You have brought yummy treats! You are so nice to share. But me, I have nothing. My cupboards are bare!” Mouse squeaks, “Don’t fret. There’s enough, dear Bear. You don’t need any food, you have stories to share!” His friends hug him tight. “It will be all right!” And the bear says, “Thanks!”
– Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman1
Our family tradition in November has included a countdown to Thanksgiving by writing one thing we are thankful for each day of the month and placing the notes in a beautiful felt tree Grandma Linda made for us. It’s a welcome tradition that establishes the habit of thankfulness throughout the entire month instead of relegating it to one glorious day. So our family has been thinking frequently about gratitude. The excellent book, Making Grateful Kids; The Science of Building Character by Jeffery Froh and Giacomo Bono,2 confirms that healthy relationships serve as the critical cornerstone upon which gratefulness is built. But what defines a healthy relationship? And how can we help our children find and define healthy relationships in and outside of our home life?
First, I think we tend to know when we see an unhealthy relationship. Abuse whether physical or emotional, manipulative or deceitful are indicators of unhealthy relationships. But we also need to know the indicators of healthy relationships so that we know what to model and what to strive for. It can also help us empathize with children who become friends with our own children but may struggle with consistently acting caring and respectful in a relationship. The research on attachment seems a good place to begin.
Basics on Attachment
Secure attachment – From birth, children who are securely attached can trust that their parents will be responsive to their needs. Researchers have determined there is a necessary 3:1 ratio of positive to negative experiences in order for children to flourish. A secure attachment will allow children to venture forth and form healthy relationships with others throughout their lifetime because they have the training and structure for it from their earliest days.
Anxious/avoidant attachment or Anxious/resistant attachment or Disorganized attachment (showing traits of both of anxious/avoidant and anxious/resistant) – Children cannot trust that their needs will be met by a parent. They have received inconsistent care. Perhaps sometimes they were ignored. Perhaps they were yelled at or punished without needs met. Children as they grow older and even into adulthood may struggle with trusting others. They may act out to gain attention – though the attention is negative – and may also pull away and refuse to be helped or comforted. 3
The critical distinction in healthy family relationships is that children and adults feel that their emotional and physical needs are being met. Children rely on parents to meet those needs so healthy parent-child relationships involve regular responsiveness. Children who are ignored or inconsistently cared for will develop an insecure attachment because they are unable to trust that their caregiver will help them when they need it. Secure attachment is not only healthy but also biological. Infants, children through elementary and even teenagers realize at a deep level that they are reliant on their parents for their very survival. Children will, at a variety of ages, test parents to see if they will truly come through for them despite poor choices or misbehaviors. “Will you love and protect me even at my worst?” is the sub-text behind those actions. Trust is deepened and reinforced when parents care for the child even in those difficult times.
How does a parent promote healthy relationships?
Be responsive to children’s needs. As in the aforementioned attachment research, children maintain their trusting connection with you as you demonstrate your ability to meet their physical and emotional needs. Needs are different from desires. A child needs love, attention and care but may not need an extra toy. If a parent cannot meet a child’s emotional needs, seeking additional support from a trusted mentor or counselor is a helpful way to address the issue. Limits and boundaries are important tools to ensure that all needs in a relationship are met. Critical boundaries should be drawn on the parental side when it comes to their own emotional needs. Adults should seek emotional support from other adults (including professionals – therapists, counselors) and not their children.
Model constructively coping with anger and fear. The most powerful way to teach a child to sustain a healthy relationship, in addition to responsiveness, is to model your own effective emotional regulation. Moms and Dads will lose their temper. And when they do, it is a prime opportunity for them to demonstrate that they can be emotionally intelligent in that difficult moment. Plan ahead! What will you do when you feel overcome with anger or anxiety? What will you say? Where will you go? Establish a routine with your family in advance. “Mommy needs five minutes.” is all you need say if you’ve let all know that you will go to your safe space when you are angry and need a cool down. For more check out, “A Better Version of Yourself.”
Listen intently and with empathy. Reserve judgements when your child is emotional and launching into a story. Allow her to tell you about what is on her mind. Ask open-ended questions. Encourage her to come to you whenever she needs to talk. Avoid criticizing friends since your child might share personal stories about herself through the guise of friends.
Play, explore nature or read together. Activities that allow parents and children along with friends to savor the moment without a need for acquiring stuff promotes trusting, healthy connections. Froh and Bono write that the enemy of a grateful state of mind is busyness. Spending playful time together can bring a family closer together like no other experience can.
Use logical consequences. Not only do logical consequences help a child become self-disciplined, they give children a stronger sense of the impact of choices. If a child says something mean to a neighborhood friend, a logical consequence is NOT taking away a favorite toy for example. How does the toy relate in any way to the hurtful words said? A logical consequence relates directly to the poor choice. Sometimes logical consequences occur naturally and all a parent need do is point them out. Spencer does not want to play with you tomorrow since you said some disrespectful words to him today. Punishment may stop the misbehavior in the moment but creates fear in the child. That fear works in direct conflict with his trust of you and promotes an insecure attachment. This can inhibit his ability to form healthy relationships in school and later in life.
Provide specific guidance about repairing harm. When children have made a poor choice, they may feel doomed to live with the guilt. They may also feel that their choice is part of who they are as a person. Talk to your children about the fact that they always have the chance to make another better choice. If they have caused harm, on purpose or inadvertently, guide them about making reparation. Could they draw a picture for a friend they hurt? Could they bring a bandaid to a child that they pushed and check on them? Give them ideas and then support those actions. Talk about how they felt after they made a choice to help heal instead of hurt.
Model forgiveness. If you’ve had an argument with your partner, show how you make up, forgive and move on. Forgiveness is a critical tool in healthy relationships to ensure that you are healing wounds and demonstrating care for the other.
What if a child enters into an unhealthy relationship? What should you do?
Talk about the qualities of a healthy relationship. Ask what qualities your child desires in friends? Kindness, trust and respect are critical. Encourage your children to listen to their feelings. If they get uncomfortable and feel that a friend or adult in their lives is crossing a boundary line, coach them to clearly say “Stop,” leave the situation and let you know about it.
Help the child communicate for herself. Remember that the primary relationship is between your child and the other person. So coach her on language she can use to communicate her needs and desires. “You were calling me a name yesterday and it hurt. Stop.” The more direct, assertive and brief a child can be with another, the better the results. It helps to practice the language so that they are ready in the moment.
Intervene. Of course, if your child is truly being harmed and unable to communicate adequately himself, you’ll need to intervene. This is not always a simple process. If it’s a school situation, go to a teacher or the direct supervising adult first to discuss the problem. If it’s a neighborhood situation, you might first try talking to the child. You could make a simple, respectful comment such as, “I think you know that harming others is wrong.” If this doesn’t work, then you will need to talk to the parent. Whatever the issue is, remember that your intervention will have a ripple effect after the incident occurs so think through first how you can build relationships through the process and not “burn bridges.”
If healthy relationships are the cornerstone of gratefulness, then it’s worth thinking about whether we have them and are encouraging them in our children’s lives. It’s never too late to dialogue on what makes healthy friendships or work on responsiveness, consistency and kindness in your family life. Wishing you a healthy and grateful season!
Also, check out the article on helping your children with Making New Friends.
Check out this video, a reading of Bear Says Thanks.
1. Wilson, K., and Chapman, J. (2012). Bear Says Thanks. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books.
2. Froh, J.J., and Bono, G. (2014). Making Grateful Kids; The Science of Building Character. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.
3. Hazen, C. and Shaver, P.R. (1994). Attachment as an Organizational Framework for Research on Close Relationships. Psychological Inquiry. Vol. 5, Iss. 1.