Building family relationships in early childhood: Here's what to know

Children who have a sense of security with people who care for them are better-equipped to deal with socialization.

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By Michelle Balani

Research suggests that children who have a sense of security with people who care for and protect them are better equipped to deal with socialization outside the home. Parent-child interactions are the foundation of your child’s social development, and when you are able to provide your child with reasons for your rules and values, he will be more likely to be able to internalize behavior. If you speak with your child and explain why, for example, you say “thank you” when someone is kind, or why he should not hit his siblings when they don’t give him their toys. Discussing rationale, or why you responded the way you did, is much more powerful than simply telling your child how to behave.

Don’t undermine your child’s emotions or decision-making abilities. At about the age of five, your child becomes more interested in the world around him, and in doing things individually as well as cooperatively within a group. At this age, your child must be allowed to explore. When he is not allowed to be independent, it can result in self-esteem issues and defiance. This is why it is important to provide an environment at home that allows your child to be autonomous and make his own decisions. Giving your child choices, even limited ones, is a powerful relationship-builder. For example, if your child expresses to you that he doesn’t like to have playdates with a certain friend or classmate, listen to the reasons behind his decision. Discuss options that acknowledge his concerns, but try not to hurt the other child. It is important to allow him to make decisions about whom he feels comfortable playing with. If you affirm his ability to trust his own feelings and thoughts, you are helping him make decisions about relationships from an early age. Be aware that your child will practice new behaviors around you because he feels most comfortable with his family and is more likely to try new things and push his boundaries when he is at home. Don’t be surprised by this, as it is a sign that he feels safe at home to express himself. By doing so, he is practicing and learning what the reaction to or consequence of that new behavior will be.

Set a good example. Once in a school setting, your child is discovering new ways of acting, relating, and socializing. The best way for you to support his social growth is to lead by example. Socially competent parents serve as role models, and your child learns how to make friends, cooperate, and share with others by seeing your interactions. As your child becomes part of a larger social world, it is important to use your influence to help him become a more socially aware individual capable of making lasting and effective relationships. Talking with him about the way you approach the different people in your life (your own parents, neighbors, relatives, co-workers, etc.), and working together on a “relationship” motto that hangs in a central location in your home is a good way to remind your child of the values he should apply to his own relationships.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab; Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids; and Michele Borba, Author and Educational Psychologist.