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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

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

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

•           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

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


•           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.


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

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