The ability to affiliate, to join with others, is the third of six core strengths that are an essential part of healthy emotional development. These six core strengths are the foundation of Scholastic's company-wide program, Keep the Cool in School: A Scholastic Campaign Against Violence and Verbal Abuse. In this article, Bruce D. Perry, MD, Ph.D., explores affiliation and how it contributes to preventing aggression and anti-social behaviors.
We are born dependent. In order for us to survive and thrive, we need other humans. Yet as we grow, we do not become independent of others. We become interdependent. We form many relationships and weave complex networks of give and take that create the healthy interdependence of family, community, and culture. Humans do this well because we are biologically designed to live, play, grow, and work in groups. We are, at our core, social creatures. Affiliation is the strength that allows us to join with others to create something stronger, more adaptive, and more creative than any one individual-a group of people working together.
The Roots of Affiliation
A family is a child's first and most important group, held together by the strong emotional bonds of attachment. Yet infants are connected to other groups with far less powerful bonds-they are born as a part of a culture and community. Membership in all of these groups will shape the child's life. In turn, as she grows she will influence these groups. It is in groups, such as those in school, that a child has thousands of brief emotional, social, and cognitive experiences that help define her development. The capacity to join in, contribute to, and benefit from groups is essential to healthy development.
Despite being a member of many groups at birth, a child must learn how to join in. We must learn how to communicate, listen, negotiate, compromise, and share with many people in many situations. These skills are not always easy to master. They are acquired over a lifetime, starting from lessons learned in our primary one-to-one relationships of early childhood.
Affiliation has its roots in attachment, the capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional relationships. Attachment bonds, however, arise from one-to-one relationships. Relationships in groups are more complex and dynamic than one-to-one relationships. Also, affiliation skills depend upon the capacity to regulate anxiety, impulsivity, and frustration. Without these two strengths, a child cannot begin to form and regulate the relationships with others necessary to develop affiliation skills. In order to join in and be a healthy part of groups, then, children must first develop healthy attachment and self-regulation capacity.
From the primary relationships with adults-parents and caregivers-the child has learned certain social language and rules of interaction. These rules are influenced by the child's dependence and the inherent size, strength, and power of the adult. None of these factors is present when a young child first starts to interact with other young children.
Mastering This Strength
It's understandable, then, that young children are much better at engaging and affiliating with adults than with other children. Social engagement and communication "rules" between children are learned. Children with siblings have a head start in this process. Children learn to join in with other children in steps. They observe, then they play in parallel, then explore one-to-one interactions, and finally negotiate the transition to more complex peer groups. Learning and mastering the rules of groups is a very important, yet difficult, process for many children. "Best" friends emerge. Temporary alliances form and may exclude one child and then later incorporate her. Being "in" or "out" can shift from hour to hour and day to day.
Some children manage this process well. The children who do not are often children with immature attachment or self-regulation skills. It is hard to have an impulsive or disengaged child in any group. In some cases, a child struggling with affiliation skills may still be very interactive, confident, and appropriate with adults. Mastering one-to-one adult-child relationships does not always predict ease with mastering the one-to-many relationships of the young child's world.
As a child matures, he becomes more capable of maintaining multiple relationships in the context of groups. Structured and regulated group interactions, such as those common to an early childhood classroom, help children develop affiliation skills. Picking a partner to work on a task or playing a game provides opportunities to wait, share, take turns, cooperate, and communicate with others. The games and the tasks increase in complexity as the child grows.
When to Worry
The majority of children who have problems in groups do so because they have yet to develop the precursor skills of affiliation and self-regulation. They do not easily learn social cues, and when they do not get what they want, they act in impulsive or immature ways. This makes other young children avoid them and creates a negative feedback cycle-fewer opportunities to socialize lead to slower social learning.
A child who is afraid or otherwise unable to affiliate may suffer a self-fulfilling prophecy. She is likely to be excluded and may feel socially isolated. Healthy development of the core strengths of attachment and self-regulation make affiliation much easier. But a distant, disengaged, or impulsive child-one who is also weak in these other core strengths-- won't be easily welcomed in a group.
The excluded child can take this pain and turn it on himself, becoming sad or self-loathing. Or he can direct the pain outward, becoming aggressive and even violent. Later in life, without intervention, these children are more likely to seek out other excluded children and begin to establish affiliations with them. Unfortunately, the glue that holds these groups together can be beliefs and values that are self-- destructive or objectionable to those who have excluded them.
How to promote affiliation in young children
- Affiliation skills develop in a sequential fashion. Once a child has mastered parallel play, she is ready for one-to-one interactive play with a peer. Once this is mastered and they can share, introduce games in which three children play. A child who has not yet mastered these three first steps will not do well in larger groups.
- Children 4 and under won't master much more than one-- to-one relationships. Indeed, if put in larger groups, they will pair off anyway. From 4 to 6, children can begin to form smaller groups. Tailor your group activities to reflect the social development of the children.
- Stop and re-direct any exclusionary behaviors you see. As children first learn to join in, they often attempt to keep their self-selected groups small and manageable. This is to be expected, but it is important to help children learn how to do that in healthier ways. Say, "Why don't you ask Tommy to play with you? You guys can sit here next to us." Often children exclude others because dealing with too many in one play or work group overwhelms their immature social skills.
- Set up tasks that involve two or three children. These activities will help children see the value in cooperating and working with one another as a team.
- Young children are not capable of complex affiliation skills. Give them many opportunities to practice sharing, negotiating, compromising, and listening in small groups. If the group is too big, the child's attention will drift, and he will not learn by participation or observation.
- Make sure shy or socially immature children have plenty of opportunities to interact. You can do this by having their "group" activities be one-to-one with another child. Children develop skills through practice, practice, practice.
Read the fourth article in this series, Awareness: The Fourth Core Strength