General Parenting Issues — 20 February 2005
How to help your children develop healthy relational skills

All parents are interested in helping their children succeed in learning the appropriate skills and attitudes toward becoming effective adults. For those parents who struggle with understanding what their children are going through and how to facilitate their progress, here is a short outline based on Joyce Buckner, Ph.D.’s Stages of Relational Development.

Babies come into the world with the capacity to learn many bits of information. The process of learning is gradual and the brain evolves to accommodate the absorption of data in stages. Each relationship stage has one major task that the child needs to master through many skills.

From birth to 18 months is the stage of “SYMBIOSIS”, in which the infant is fused with the parents for care and identity. During this period the infant’s task is “ATTACHMENT”. The baby learns to connect well with the primary care givers and understand the cues for human attachment that lead to self- preservation.

The parents’ role in this early phase is to be consistently available and warm, cheerful and positive, enthusiastic and loving. They need to hold the baby with affection, reverence and joy and provide food, comfort and tenderness happily. The baby absorbs the parents’ attitude affirming her preciousness even in her preverbal phase. Babies who receive this loving care are likely to end up being more emotionally secure adults.

From 18 months to 3 years is the stage of “INDIVIDUATION” and the child’s major task is “EXPLORATION”: moving from being physically attached to the parents most waking hours to letting go and testing short separation safely.
The child needs the parents to provide protective limits, assure the child’s safety, encourage the child to explore through reassurance, permission and information. For example: “you can go to the end of the lawn and play, this would be fun. Beyond the lawn is the street and that is dangerous.” The comforting voice of the parents reassures the child and supports him in being guided and guarded toward greater autonomy. Some parents are so fearful, that their protective emotions are alarming to kids. For example, a parent supervising a child in the play ground may say in a strained voice: “ Watch out, watch out, you can get hurt going down the slide”. This may discourage the child from sliding down or accomplishing it safely. A better way is to say calmly: “You will be safe and have fun going down the slide, I am here to catch you”. This way the child is more likely to land safely and be gleeful about her accomplishment.Children helped in the supportive manner are more likely to develop healthy curiosity, learn to explore and be safe as they mature.

Between ages of 3 and 4 years is the stage of “IDENTITY”, in which the relationship task is the “DEVELOPMENT OF THE CORE SELF”. This is the time when children’s identity is better defined and their sense of being a separate person is initiated. The parents need to appreciate and support the child’s taste, preferences and opinions as her own by repeating and validating her choices. “I see how proud you are to paint the sky purple, which is your way of making it so bright”, “ You like strawberries better than blueberries, that is good to know.” Honoring the child’s assertions as valid, helps them begin to define their identity as unique from others, and helps them grow up with a healthy self-definition and respect for others.

The ages 4 to 7 represent the stage of “COMPETENCE”, in which the main task is “ACHIEVING COMPETENCE AND POWER”. Children at this stage learn many practical skills from tying their shoelaces to learning to read, helping with chores, making their bed or helping parents with the younger siblings. Parents need to praise all these accomplishments with enthusiasm. It is important to give kudos that are age appropriate so the child would trust it and own his competence. For instant, instead of: “ This is the best made bed I have ever seen,” you say, “This is the best made bed by a seven year old I have ever seen”. Children delight in their own achievements and develop appropriate pride about success based on effort, which is a value they can carry with them through adulthood.

The 7-13 year old children are at the “INTERPERSONAL” stage, in which their task is the “DEVELOPMENT OF A RELATIONSHIP WITH A BEST FRIEND”. This is the phase of using one’s identity and competence to establish a non-familial friendship. “ She is my best girlfriend”. At this time, it is the parents’ job to help the child with information about relationships with others and help support and transport the youngster to friends. Parents need to assist the child at times of social rejection or loss and affirm her desirability as a friend. When parents succeed in helping their child in this phase, he or she is enriched for life with appropriate social skills that stem from and enhance self-liking and worth.

Between 13 and 18 the relationship task is “INTIMACY” in which the young person’s task is to learn about “LOVING”. This is the beginning of romantic involvement for many children as they first fall in love and become emotionally attached to an individual outside the original family.

This is a challenging time for the youngsters. They are struggling with the emotional issues of maturation, self-view, connection to peers and romantic attraction. Supportive parental input during this period is imperative. Teens need to be; informed about boundaries in intimacy, supported in appropriate self –appreciation, guided about positive and destructive peer influences, cautioned about the role of hormones and emotions in decision making and above all, accepted, and loved. Needless to say, this is a most daunting task.

When done successfully, parents help their children be ready for mature and lasting emotional and romantic relationships throughout their children’s adult lives.

February 20, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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