Paul Watzlawick was a family therapist and communication theorist. As part of his work, he detailed five principles of communication to consider. One of these was the idea that there are two types of interactions between people. Relationships and interactions can be symmetrical or complementary. I find this to be interesting when contemplating which one works best for children with emotional or behavioural needs.
A symmetrical relationship interaction involves two individuals mirroring each other’s behaviour or emotions. The two parties minimise the differences between each other. A practical example would be when a student gets angry, the teacher responds by getting angry or vice versa. Alternatively, a teacher may be indifferent about a topic of conversation and a child mimics this indifference. When this is the prevalent dynamic of a relationship, behaviour and emotions can escalate. Have you ever had a symmetrical relationship with a child in your class? What about a colleague or friend?
A complementary relationship or interaction results in the two parties having two distinct roles. One person is in the “one-up” position and one person is in the “one-down” position. In a complementary relationship, one person’s persistent aggression would lead to the other’s constant withdrawal. Equally, one person’s habitual negativity could lead to the other’s consistent positive outlook.
Is symmetrical or complementary better?
Naturally, a teacher may feel that a complementary relationship is best where they are in an assertive “one-up” position while the student is in the compliant “one-down” position. However, neither a symmetrical or complementary relationship is productive all the time. Different children and different teachers require different interactions and relationships dependent on the context. Problems can arise when a relationship becomes stuck in one style of interaction.
For example, if a child has persistent aggressive, angry tendencies and a teacher is habitually meeting this with a symmetrical response of mirroring the emotions through confrontation and reprimanding, it may be time to consider a complementary approach. Take the “one-down” role when they get angry and adopt a calm demeanour and style of interaction. Will this de-escalate the situation?
Equally, a parent may be passive about a child’s behaviour which is being mirrored by the teacher. The relationship may be positive but are the changes that need to occur happened? It could be the perfect opportunity to switch up the style of interactions to complementary and inject some urgency.
The answer nobody wants
If there were black-and-white answers to supporting children with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, they wouldn’t exist. Like everything we consider, it is trial-and-error and a reflective process. If you’re supporting a child, working with a parent or just interested in communication, consider which of the two relationships you have and contemplate whether it is productively serving you or in need of a change.
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