Kerrie was in Year Nine. On Monday morning she was best friends with Leigh. By the end of recess, their friendship was in tatters. Kerrie was sobbing, and her best friend of the past three years was hanging out with a new group of friends. Kerrie’s relationship with Leigh remained on and off for the next two years – they were frenemies: as much enemy as friend. Trust was often betrayed, feelings were hurt and relationships ruined. And Kerrie’s tears and tantrums were an endless source of amusement to the 15-year-old boys who observed the torment.
During adolescence, our children’s friendships become increasingly complicated and volatile, particularly in comparison to friendship during primary school years. While children aged between five and 12 generally enjoy companionships of convenience, the high school years usher in a new kind of relationship.
Here are six ways you can help your teen deal with friendship problems.
Up until around age 12 (give or take a year or two, depending on the development of your child), friendships are most often built around two or more children who play together because they live nearby, their parents are friends, or it’s convenient in some other way. Young children are usually fairly satisfied to have a playmate, as long as they can agree on their mutually enjoyable activities. At this early stage, understanding one another’s needs and being emotionally invested in relationships is not typically a primary motivating factor in the friendship.
From around the age of 12, friendships change in purpose, focus, and function. Our children begin to seek greater intimacy and trust in their friendships. This social development accompanies their cognitive, physical, and personality maturation. Our children want to share the changes they are experiencing with peers who are experiencing the same things, and they want to do it in healthy and positive ways. And they begin to seek, in their peer group, the security and safety that they have previously experienced with their parents.
Friendships during the teenage years become more similar to those we hold as adults. Teens begin to seek a friend who they can have an emotional connection with that goes deeper than wanting to play with the same toys, dolls, or sports equipment (although mutual interests remain important). However, because of the developmental changes occurring in their lives, relationships during these years are often fluid. This means that our children are likely to have several friendship issues as they work out their own identity, and as they mature emotionally, psychologically, physically, and socially.
How we can help
The following six ideas can be helpful in dealing with teenage friendship troubles:
1. Take time to listen
More than anything, children who are in emotional pain or distress need someone who will listen. Unfortunately our teens are more likely to push us away than confide in us, so we need to make it easy for them to talk. One on one time, long walks, texting, or even facebook messaging can be useful tools to encourage them to open up.
2. Ask questions
It is tempting to flood your child with your decades of wisdom. Telling them how to solve all of their problems would be so easy! Your own autobiography may be overflowing with examples of how you dealt with similar problems as a teen. But our children resist this approach. Instead, we can recognise that they have the answers inside them, and ask them questions (the right way – no inquisitions please) to help them determine how to act.
- How has this affected you?
- How has it affected the other person? And the friendship?
- How does this fit with your idea of what a friendship is all about?
- Should all friendships last forever?
- What do you see as your alternatives?
Only after you have listened to your child’s responses should you offer to share your ideas if your child is interested.
3. Be a model
Show your children how friendships should function by having good friends around you who are trustworthy, loyal, fun, and who share your values and goals.
4. Invite your child’s friends over
To encourage friendships, get your teenagers to spend time with their friends at your home. You can be sure they’re safe. You can help your child build relationships in an environment you feel good about. Plus, you can supervise and observe (from a distance), and then ask questions about the relationships you see.
5. Get out more!
Encourage your adolescent to participate in extra-curricular activities like sports, music, a part-time job, a local club or society, or something where they can develop new relationships with like-minded people.
6. Monitor technology
Mobile phones, facebook, instant messaging, and technology can be good and bad for teenage friendships. By keeping an eye on what your child is sending and receiving (non-intrusively), you can help your child make good decisions. Plus, if managed the right way, it can give you plenty to talk about together.
What NOT to do
Three things that are sure to backfire on you are:
- Banning friends. Don’t do it! Research clearly shows that children will rebel against parents use of power, and will actually spend more time with friends you have ‘banned’. Or they’ll find a new group of friends who make the originally banned friends seem tame!
- Talking at them, judging them, or criticising them. Your teenager needs your support, guidance, and a model of what good relationships look like.
- Confronting offenders. If your child is hurt by a frenemy (or a bully), getting involved rarely makes things better. Instead, work with your child to help him or her make good decisions about the particular friend.
Our teens need positive friendships for healthy development. As parents, we can offer support and guidance as we encourage increasing independence in our adolescents, and help them navigate their changing, developing social world.
This article was written for Kidspot by Justin Coulson, Ph. D. Justin is a relationships and parenting expert, author and father of five children. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at happyfamilies.com.au.