By Dr. Michelle W. Canarick, Ph. D., P’23, ’24
Trying to keep up with your middle schooler’s friendships can give you whiplash! Quickly moving from one friend to another is developmentally typical for kids between the ages of 11-14.
Adolescence happens to everyone but it happens at different speeds. Our sweet little kids become romantically curious, more socially focused, less cooperative at home, and more intellectually open—all at their own pace. While they are exploring their own evolving interests, they may be leaving a slower developing friend in their wake. Or they may be that slower moving friend who now feels left behind. This is confusing and emotional for both the kids to handle and for their parents to watch.
Here are some things you CAN DO (or not do) as a parent during these tricky times:
- DO set up an environment where your kids can talk to you.
“Obviously!” you say, “Of course I want to set up an environment where my kids can talk to me. But how do I do it?” Well, it starts by listening without criticism or judgment. It does not go like this: “You have to invite Maya if you are having some girls here. You have been friends forever.” (While also secretly growing anxious about how Maya’s mom, aka YOUR friend, is going to feel if Maya is not included.) Instead, say something like this: “Tell me why you don’t want to have Maya here and we can figure out what to do together.”
- DO NOT talk smack about other kids.
“Whaaat? Not me! I’d never do that!” Great. And really, don’t do it! When you talk badly about another child, it models for your kid that that is a cool thing to do, and it alienates your kid. How does it do that? Teenagers’ relationships ebb and flow, so when it’s on an ebb, talking about a kid with your child may actually feel like a bonding experience. But on a flow, it means that your child now knows how you feel about that other kid and may not feel like he/she can tell you why he/she feels differently.
- DO model for your children how to be a good friend.
Family dinners are a great time for this. Talk to your children about the difficult social encounters you have, whether with a friend, coworker or boss. Let them help you sort out a solution to your problem. When you’ve come up with a strategy, tell them it’s an experiment, follow through on the experiment and tell them how it turned out. Parents are people too and the social world can be just as tricky for them!
- DO NOT be a social engineer.
Even if you believe you have something invested in who your child is friends with, let them sort out their own friendships. It’s important, even in this tight knit community, to separate your own needs from those of your child. And truthfully, no matter what you do, you can’t change their social standing. What you can do, however, is inadvertently put pressure on them and isolate them from both you and their peers.
Just like when they were in preschool and early elementary school and you taught them how to MAKE friends, as they move into the middle school years, it’s important to teach them how to KEEP friends. Here are some tips for teens about how to be good friends:
Help your child be a friend whom other kids can talk to. Teach them and model for them how to slow down on the advice, judgment, or sharing of their own story. Listening to what their friends have to say is invaluable to their friendships.
- Build trust
Just because your child has been friends with most of their friends for what seems like forever, trust isn’t necessarily in their friendship. Trust is something that is earned and only really earned by a person who wants to earn it. Remind your child to be someone others can trust by not telling secrets or forwarding texts, and by trying to have their friend’s back. Help your child to find friends who do the same and confide in those friends even when someone else seems cooler, smarter, or more exciting.
- Teach your child to fight fair
Everyone gets in fights, even with the most dependable, trustworthy of friends. When in a fight, here are ways to talk it out, rather than manipulatively trying to “win.”
- Stay calm. Don’t shout or cry.
- Be direct with your friend. Don’t talk behind their back.
- Be honest. No one can read your mind.
- Listen. Don’t ignore your friend’s point of view.
- Don’t take the easy way out. Throwing in an insult might end the conversation, but it also makes your friend feel bad and doesn’t actually get your point across.
- Remind your child that they can damage friendships by:
- Talking behind backs
- Asking a friend to take sides against another friend
- Breaking a promise or telling a secret
- Being too bossy
- Bragging or showing off
- Leaving someone out and being public about it
- Saying something unkind about someone or their loved one
- Embarrassing a friend
- Being too busy to listen
Friendships, particularly during those early teen years, can be challenging and sometimes require a little extra TLC. But your teen is up for the challenge and with you by their side, they are more resilient than you think! And so are you.