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3.4 Signs of interpersonal (relationship) problems

Before dealing directly with the signs in this section, consider the possibility of school and learning problems. Interpersonal difficulties in children are very often accompanied by learning and performance problems at school. Helping the child with those problems usually leads to improvement in interpersonal areas, without specific attention to the interpersonal issues.

You will recall the social dimension of development normally comes into focus after the emotional and moral dimensions are more fully developed. The child has learned to manage his feelings fairly appropriately, without tantrums or pouting, uncontrolled excitement or unwarranted fear. Children do certainly get excited, unhappy, frustrated, upset, bored, and are clearly emotional people. Still, they manage all of these feelings and intense emotions reasonably well.

From a moral perspective, young children have learned a lot about right and wrong, good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate. They also have learned to "read" the emotions and feelings of other people and can decide about things based on how others feel about them. "I won't do that because Mom will be upset." "I will do this since it will make Dad happy." Getting Mom upset is "bad" and making Dad happy is "good."

Children also learn to apply these simple notions of good and bad to their interactions with other people. The process is complex; but they take the other person's perspective. "If this would make me unhappy, it will likely make others unhappy too." "If this would hurt me, it would hurt other people too." "If I would like being treated this way, it would be a good way to treat my friends."

When emotional management and moral judgement are combined, the result is a child who has the developmental skills and attitudes needed to be interpersonally successful. This success plays out in the context of the child's personality which varies a lot from child to child. Some children are more outgoing while others are more reserved. Some are more bold while others are more timid. Some are talkative while others are more quiet. The point is these characteristics have a wide normal range and only the extremes are anything to be concerned about.

As you look at the signs of interpersonal difficulties, then, you can see they reflect problems getting along with other people. More importantly, though, they reflect deficits in the children's emotional and moral development.

For the first eight signs of the fourteen in this section, the primary emotional management issue is how the child deals with anger and frustration. Things happen that can frustrate the child and he may not handle it appropriately. This emotional mismanagement can range from pouting and being hateful to more open aggression and uncontrolled anger.

Assuredly, children in care may have a lot of reasons to be angry and frustrated. Further, it's likely they haven't had constructive, positive emotional and moral examples set for them. Even so, they must learn better interpersonal approaches to people and frustrating situations.

After each technique, write a sentence or two about why the technique is appropriate.

•           Never add anger to the equation. You certainly need to be firm and clear about what you expect; but getting angry models the very behavior you want to change.

•           To the extent you can, don't try to stop the inappropriate behavior while it's happening. Do what is needed to be sure other people or the child don't get hurt; but try to let the episode run its course. Attempting to stop the behavior while it's happening usually only intensifies the child's reaction.

•           Once the episode has passed, calmly tell the child the behavior was unacceptable and why it was inappropriate. Ask, "Did you have better choices? How else could you deal with those situations?"

•           Be clear about what the consequences of such behavior will be in the future. Those consequences need to be fairly mild, not lasting for more than a day or two, consistently applied, and something you can control. Again, taking away a privilege for a specific amount of time is best.

Remember these problems are developmental and changing the behavior will take time. The goal is to gradually see fewer, less intense reactions from the child. It will help to keep in mind not dealing successfully with these developmental issues is the single most common reason why placements disrupt and children are moved.

If the child's behavior and relationships don't gradually improve, talk with the mental health professionals to develop a specific behavior management plan for the child. That plan shouldn't include any "threats" to quickly increase consequences or to move the child. Additionally, the plan must include rewards or positive consequences for "improved" behavior and for "fewer" negative episodes.

Although the first eight signs do reflect a lack of social skills, emphasis needs to start with work on the emotional and moral developmental deficits children in care are likely experiencing. For the last six signs, emphasis needs to be on social skill development. When these signs are seen, children need help with relating to people in more assertive, self-determined ways. This starts with the child's relationships with you and other people at your home.

After each technique, write a sentence or two about why it is appropriate.

•           Don't tell the child what other children think and feel don't matter. They do matter, a lot, especially to the child.

•           Talk with the child about social behavior and approaches that may be "putting off" other children. "When you do or say this or that, children probably think. . . ."

•           Encourage the child to be more assertive. "When you don't stick up for yourself or don't say anything when children treat you that way, they will keep trying to get a reaction from you. It's your job to let other people know what you will and won't put up with."

•           Help the child set better personal boundaries. "When you cry or get upset, other children will keep tormenting you. You might try either calmly telling them they are being stupid or maybe you can just ignore them. If they can't get you upset, they will work on better ways of getting your attention."

•           Help the child understand relationships better. "Your friends don't want to just have you as their friend. They also want to spend time with other children. When you try to keep them to yourself, they don't like that and won't want to spend time with you."

With all of the signs, "teach" children the things they need to know about the give and take of relationships and about the skills they need to be interpersonally successful. Also, play with them, do things with them, and help them develop related skills such as playing ball, just sitting and talking, and whatever else they need to be able to do to participate effectively in their social worlds. Just keep in mind a very normal part of this learning process for children is trying most of the interpersonal strategies that don't work, discarding those approaches, and coming up with ones that do work. Doing it wrong and then finding a better way is one of the most effective learning strategies for children, and for adults too, for that matter.

After each sign, write a sentence or two about what you think may help the child with the problem.

Signs:

•           Frequently pouts and is hard to live with.

•           Is often hateful and in a bad mood.

•           Gets very angry when things don’t go his way.

•           Frequently screams and yells at people. (This is a problem unless the adults are screaming and yelling as much as or more than the child.)

•           Frequently breaks or damages things.

•           Hits or hurts people.

•           Starts or gets into fights.

•           Bullies and picks on others.

•           Has a lot of trouble making and keeping friends.

•           Wants to keep his friends all to himself.

•           Frequently gets his feelings hurt.

•           Frequently is the brunt of teasing and put-downs.

•           Regularly tries to please everyone and keep everyone happy.

•           Most children his age don’t like him.

Discussion point:

•           How might differences such as racial, economic, religious, language, developmental, or disabilities contribute to interpersonal problems for children in care?

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Please send comments or questions to Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. GAC@GaryCrow.net