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'90s FAMILY : The Young and the Agressive : Helping Your Child Make Friends


How can parents help their children become more friend-friendly? Some expert advice:

* Examine the family environment. Parents and guardians need to examine--and if necessary, change--how they interact with their children and other members of the household, says Kenneth Dodge, psychology professor at Vanderbilt University.

"Kids learn the most from Mom, Dad or whoever is their primary caregiver," he says. "Parents are their first peers. If they fail to provide the child with warmth or if the household is in chaos, then (the child) will be less able to get along with peers, teachers and even future employers."

Similarly, a child physically abused at home has "a very high" chance of becoming antisocial, Dodge says, citing a 1990 study of abused 4-year-olds that he co-conducted.

Additional research concurs. Volatile family relationships during the first three years of life can negatively affect behavior, according to a 1994 report from the Carnegie Corp., a nonprofit philanthropy in New York.

* Acknowledge any violence in the home or community. Parents should also influence educators, politicians and other caregivers to do the same.

During the past 12 years, the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center has made it a point to address local violence, according to an article in the October, 1994, issue of the journal Pediatrics. A staff of 26 regularly teaches children how to have healthy relationships with peers and parents--and how, for example, domestic violence or street fighting can crush relationships.

This program, which one expert calls "an ideal model," has sparked others.

* Teach empathy to children as young as 4. Psychologist Myrna B. Shure, author of "Raising A Thinking Child" (Henry Holt, 1994), says this allows a child to identify with a sad or mad friend without taking it personally. Instead of getting defensive, a child will try to understand a friend's feelings.

* Treat children with respect. "It teaches them to respect others," Shure says.

* Pay attention. If a child talks about friend problems, listen, says Dr. Harold H. Bloomfield, a Del Mar psychiatrist and co-author of several relationship books. "And I mean listen without interrupting," he says. "It's helpful to tell your child how you remember feeling at his age. But save it until he's done talking, otherwise your story will become the focus."

And the child will feel cheated.

* Role-play with a child who's having trouble making friends. "Teach him social-skills lessons," Bloomfield says. "It's cheaper than therapy bills." For instance, show a child how to use the phone to invite friends over. Or how to make coming out to play sound like an exciting proposition.

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