Helping Your Kids Navigate Difficult Relationships

Helping Your Children Navigate Difficult Relationships

We've talked a lot about adult relationships this month. So we want to spend some time today talking about how to help our kids. Our kids have lots of relationships to navigate too. Friendships, teachers, coaches, and of course the other parents. So how can we help them navigate all these things without interfering?

We're going to cover three main points. Number one, the best place to start with helping our kids navigate difficult relationships, no matter your kids age. Number two, we're going to talk about helping them navigate drama. Number three, we're going to talk about the most powerful thing you can do to help your kids with difficult relationships. Our kids need to interact with lots of different people in complex situations.

Where do we start with helping our kids navigate difficult relationships?

It’s super important to start with compassion and then normalize it. A compassionate curiosity about their experience with other people. It was difficult when we were kids. We've all had those painful experiences of navigating high school or middle school or whatever it was. But it's even more complex now with social media relationships and the impact of that on the family has changed. The community looks different than it ever did. And so not only is it normal to struggle with relationships as adults, our kids are just learning. Recognize how it is challenging.  

There's a tendency to have two different schools of thought when our kids come home and tell us about something, they're struggling with a relationship, maybe it's a teacher or maybe it's another student. One tendency can be to emotionally cut off the other person. For example, to deal with it by concluding the other person is wrong or an idiot. To be dismissive. On the other end of the spectrum is to be too accommodating. Meaning like, well they have a point. It's really difficult and it's neither one of those things. Instead, starting with relationships are tricky and they take skills that we don't necessarily have built into us automatically.

It’s really important for your kids to have a safe space to come to with you because you have navigated all of these things. And if they trust you, to be able to open up and talk about these things, that's going to be huge. Your perspective. One of the big things that I do with Jax is trying to put myself in his shoes even though it doesn't seem like that big of a deal to him and his world, it is a big deal. Don't minimize their experience and their reality because the world's a lot bigger to them than it is to us. Instead, in those moments to be able to say that really hurts or that's tough.  What do you think about X, Y and Z?  Being really present with them in what they're struggling with is so important.

A bullying situation recently happened with his table mates. They sit at desks together in third grade and there are four of them sitting together. They would work together; they would converse together; and they would say, we don't care. Like, they would cut him off and say, we don't care.  They were just being really mean to him.  He was really struggling with it because he’s very social and wants to be included and involved, of course, like anyone. And so he was struggling with it and we had some long talks.  I asked him, “Have you talked to your teacher about it?  I ended up asking him, “What do you need from me? How can I help you with this? Because this is really hurtful and it's really sad that's happening, and I hate that that's happening. We even talked about telling them how it makes him feel when they say that, and he tried but they still didn't stop doing it. He talked to his school counselor about it. Finally, because nothing was changing, I went to the teacher and the counselor and they swapped around the tables and he had a much different experience after he got away from those kids. His school year changed. He ended up winning an award from the guidance counselor because of how he kept trying and showing up with his feelings. He was brave and strong.

Using word skills. Relationships take relationship skills just like you learn math or some other topic. You have to learn how to do this. You think that once you become an adult, you get good at relationships, but the truth is we're always learning and we're picking up cues. If we can teach our kids and use the word skill, then it's not just something that they're expected to get.

How do we deal with it when our kids have a relationship problem with someone in authority?

A teacher told my son that his hair looked dirty. He was very upset. I was more upset than he was about it. He went to his homeroom teacher and said, this other teacher said this to me, and I just don't think it was very nice. I don't know why she told me that. His homeroom teacher took action immediately and talked to the principal about it and they agreed it was not okay. She validated him and said thank you for telling me. The school called me that afternoon. We talked about it after school. We worked through it and the principal, and the guidance counselor asked him how he would like to handle it. He said he wanted to write her a letter and tell her that it hurt his feelings and that it was not okay. The adults in his life, between me, the guidance counselor, his homeroom teacher and the principal all came around him in a really great way for him to be able to share how he felt, but also stand up for himself in the way he wanted.

He understands that he can't control other people and their actions, their words.  All he can control is how he handles it. And that was a big learning point for him. I hate to say this but I'm glad he experienced it because it sets him up for success in other situations.

We have to help them understand that relationships are hard, and you have to work at them.   It doesn't matter what form they take. An authority figure, friend or otherwise. Let's dig a little bit deeper and get some specifics about the relationship skills we can teach our kids.

Our kids deal with a lot of drama, especially nowadays since social media has become so widespread, it feels like the drama level has gone up.

How do we help our kids, even our young kids, navigate drama?  

We need to teach them the skill of “name it to tame it.” Let them talk it out, be curious, and ask a lot of questions.  Stay calm and empathize.

For example, recently my son was riding bikes with his friends, and he skinned up his knee.
He was limping a little bit and one of his friends told him to quit being a baby and that it didn't hurt that bad. I asked him, “How'd that make you feel?” He said it hurt really bad and that his friend’s words really upset him, and that he wanted to punch his friend. Then we talked about how it's natural to feel anger towards someone when they are telling you how you should feel. I empathized with him and told him I totally understand that because I've felt that way too.

I talked to him about gaslighting and that it has happened to me. And we talked about why it’s not okay to punch people. We talked about how we can’t control how people act. And you may have to decide if that person's really a good friend or not.  

It’s about helping our kids work through some solutions. Give them the space to process but don't join them in the drama. Allow them to have big feelings about things and also work through it all in real time. Bring the temperature down and work on solving the problem.

Not getting into the drama with our kids is really important. Instead, we can remain calm and ask some good questions. For example, “Do you just need me to listen, or do you want me to help you brainstorm some solutions?” Because sometimes our kids just need to let it out and sometimes they'll figure it out on their own. A lot of times as single parents, we want to jump to solutions. But that's not necessarily what our kids need. We need to remember that we're helping them navigate how to deal with relationships for their sake within that particular relationship. We're also teaching them skills for how to navigate relationships as they get older. So, listen and be curious and don’t just give them a solution to fix the situation.

What is a situation where you would step in and talk to the other parent?

There are definitely times when we wear the parent hat. Kids stay kids and we stay the parent, we're the adult. When there's a power dynamic difference.  Where my child is definitely not in a position of power in a relationship, whether it’s with a peer, adult, coach, teacher, or whoever it might be when they actually need my parental authority to help balance the scale. Or if they’re too afraid and they don't have the skills. Maybe the other person has been too big or pushy. It’s a situation where I need to show up with my authority.  If my child can handle it with some balance and appropriateness, I will step back and let them do that. But the second I see that they may be taken advantage of and harmed in some way, I step in.

We need to empower our kids to know that this is going to happen and there are things that we can do for them. It’s being there with them and maybe even learning some scripts in our minds to be able to use when they're telling us about a difficult situation. Like, “Tell me more about that, or thank you for telling me, that sounds really hard.”  As a parent, there are skills we can learn. Having a couple of things in your back pocket that you go to is a good place to guide them.

Let’s talk about how to emotionally support our kids in their difficult relationships.

What are some things that we can do to emotionally support them in these difficult situations?

Definitely to normalize that difficult relationships are going to happen. We will have hard things happen, challenging people that we have to work with or interact with. And that when we encounter people who are difficult, it's often a reflection of that person and where they're at. It's not a reflection of our children's worth. They can know with certainty who they are and what they bring to the table and what is theirs to own. But they don't have to take on other people's difficulties, challenges, or hard behaviors.

Unless there's a power issue, help them understand that it's not about being right or wrong or winning or losing. For relationships to be healthy, there needs to be reciprocal participation. There is right or wrong, but as we approach relationships, it's important to realize there are two sides to the story. It doesn't mean that someone's not in the wrong on some level, but to try to put the shoe on the other foot and get into the mind of whoever it is that's creating a challenging situation. To be emotionally supportive you need to relate in an empathetic way. You can talk to your kids about this and maybe even role-play this situation so that we can get a fair analysis of where the struggle really is.

As much as we want our kids to be self-aware, we also want them to be other-aware. When it’s our kid who has done something to another kid, instead of asking how would you feel if that same thing had happened to you?  Ask “How do you think they felt?” Help them get outside of their feelings to consider and gain the skill of knowing what another person's perspective might be.


A good place to start is by normalizing and talking about relationship skills. That this is not something that just comes naturally. This is something that we learn, and learning relationship skills is part of growing up.

We can help our kids deal with drama by being curious and empathetic and listening and being completely present but not in the drama.  

We can intentionally offer emotional support for our kids by being present and walking with them, which not only helps them, but it helps them get a skill that they can give others and it’s not trying to fix everything for them.

It’s a natural tendency to want to protect our kids and not want them to struggle. So, normalize that for yourself.

Listener Question

Hi, this is Kelly, a single mom. How do you deal with the loss of faith or intermittent loss when still parenting?

When I think about this as a parent and having seen the loss of faith in my kids, I think we could view this question a few different ways.  My kids are 18 and 21, and I love Jesus with my whole heart and raised them with similar values. But as they became teenagers, they began to step away from belief and began to have doubts and began to really challenge it, which has been very difficult. I have had to grieve it and let them have their own identity and beliefs. And making space for them to explore and loving them so intentionally even as they push back and struggle.

What really helped me was trusting in God, trusting He is pursuing my kids in ways that I can't see. I'm going to choose to trust that you're still at work. I know how much God has pursued me and it's no less for them. This is their walk with Him rather than a transplanted faith for me to my kids. It's God's work to redeem, but it's so hard. It is really hard to trust. Faith does not exist without a doubt. Doubt is a part of working towards faith.

If there's no doubt, there's no faith.  It’s easy to fear doubt, especially when my kids are not following Jesus. God is bigger than that.

How do we deal with our own doubt, and our own faith, as parents?  

It comes back for me at least to recognize that we have a very big God, much bigger than our doubt and much bigger than our fear. I'm walking through something right now I have no clue how this is going to resolve itself. And I was just reading this morning about the importance of trusting God with a situation and it's hard, it's really difficult.  Whether it's our kids or whether it's us, we are pursued by a love that is bigger than anything that we are carrying right now.

I've been thinking a lot about free will when it comes to God. We do have something beautiful and wonderful called free will as humans. God uses the free will to bring Him closer to us. At least that's been my experience because if someone were to try to control me and say you have to believe this way, you have to do this, it's just going to push me further away versus giving me the freedom to choose. I think that's a beautiful part of life and living and building faith.

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