The path to healthy relationships — and healthy conflict resolution— can start with three simple questions.
By Lisa Lawmaster Hess
Relationships play a role in our lives from the minute we are born. From the connections we make with our families to the friendships we form on the playground to the love we feel for another person that leads us to create families of our own, relationships are a sustaining factor in our lives. Happiness researchers consistently find connections between the quality of our relationships and our level of life satisfaction.
When I worked as an elementary-school counselor, many of my classroom lessons and the majority of individual meetings instigated by my students centered on relationships. Making friends. Keeping friends. Weathering the storms inevitable in friendships.
The trajectory was fairly predictable. Kindergartners and first-graders worked at making friends. Second- and third-graders honed the skills of keeping friends and began to learn how to navigate conflict on their own. Fourth- and fifth-graders, often the most dramatic of the bunch, began to expect more from their friends. Loyalty. Privacy. Exclusivity.
And that’s when the conflict really hit the fan.
Unfortunately, not all friendships survived. Though I hated to see any friendship falter, I also hated seeing one friend consistently in pain while another wielded all the power. As adults, we learn when it’s time to walk away — whether temporarily or permanently — from a friendship that’s no longer healthy for us, but kids haven’t yet figured out this concept.
One tool in my friendship lessons/discussions arsenal became the “Three Friendship Questions.” I used these questions in the classroom as a part of “guidance lessons” on friendship and I used them in my office when two (or sometimes more) friends (usually girls, most often in third or fourth grade) seemed to be struggling with their relationship. Each question can be answered simply, with a yes or a no:
- Do I usually have fun when I’m with this person?
- Do I usually feel good about myself when I’m with this person?
- Do I often get into trouble when I’m with this person?
In healthy relationships, the answers should be yes to #1, yes to #2 and no to #3. That said, this isn’t a scientific assessment, but rather a means of trouble-shooting. A different answer to any (or all) of the questions doesn’t mean an automatic end to a friendship; it simply means that the two people involved need to have a conversation — or, perhaps, several conversations — about how their answers make each of them feel and whether or not that’s acceptable to both parties.
If, for example, two students have been friends since preschool but suddenly their relationship is more about fighting than fun (a “no” to question #1), that warrants a discussion. What’s going on? Can it be resolved? Are both people happy more often than sad when they’re together? If not, are both people willing to work to change that?
“Wrong” answers to question #2 can indicate a shift in the balance of power. I saw this often in fourth- and fifth-grade girls, especially as the importance of peer approval and interest in the opposite sex began to emerge. When this happens (and especially if the friends are on different timetables where these interests are concerned), a friendship on which the sun once rose and set for both friends can suddenly be seen as childish by one and endangered by the other. As the first tries to spread her wings and the second, feeling threatened, begins to cling, unkindness often emerges. Unchecked, this pattern almost inevitably leads to one winner and one loser, but, with some conversation and a little sensitivity on both sides, the friendship can grow and change along with the friends.
Question #3 can also become an issue with burgeoning maturity, but sometimes occurs when values clash or children are desperate for a friend — any friend. A “yes” to this question is a good opportunity for children to examine their own values, along with their comfort as a leader and/or follower and their idea of what makes a good friend in the first place. With adolescents, particularly those involved in budding romances, the question can be rephrased to consider the values question directly: Do I often feel that my values are tested when I am with this person? This opens the door to discussion about physical relationships as a part of a relationship, allowing the adolescent to explore the issue in a non-threatening, less “hot button” manner.
So, what happens when the answers aren’t quite what we — or our students — would hope? If a conversation about the issues involved doesn’t lead to a resolution, I often suggested a relationship vacation. This provides both people with an opportunity to take some space and think. Sometimes, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the students are “back together” in no time. Other times, there are winners and losers, when one party thrives with space while the other feels left behind. Almost always, repeated conversations are necessary for the friends to make sense of what’s going on.
If all this is sounding very adult and perhaps even a little much for elementary-school students, keep in mind that our goal is not simply to help our students to decide with whom they should play on the playground, but also what they should expect from a healthy relationship. Elementary-school relationships form the foundation for the teen and adult relationships that follow. Helping children learn from a young age what a good friend is and isn’t, where to draw the line when it comes to how they’ll allow someone else to treat them and when to walk away because they aren’t being respected will instill a sense of self-worth that can protect them from future toxic relationships.
Tall order for little kids? Not if we remember that the path to healthy relationships — and healthy conflict resolution— can sometimes start with three simple questions. From there, we have the opportunity to build problem-solving skills, mutual respect and perhaps even lifelong friendships.
Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.