Friends. Everyone needs a buddy to lean on. Whether child or adult, studies consistently show that good friendships help us fight illness, promote brain health, slow aging, avoid depression, and prolong life. Not to mention they just generally make us feel happier. Friendships are also very important to teens. As they prepare to pull away from their parents, youth need the acceptance and support of their friends to rely on. In addition to offering general companionship, adolescent friendships help teens develop conflict resolution skills and provide stability during transitions as they have someone who is going through the same situations.
Studies have shown that teens without friends tend to have lower levels of academic achievement and lower self esteem. As they get older, they are more apt to drop out of school and to get involved in delinquent activities. As parents, it is important to encourage friendships among teens. However, it is also very important to know who your teen’s friends are and to communicate openly about changes in peer relationships and friendships with your teens as these can be early indications of a larger problem.
The goal, of course, is for your adolescent to make friends, become a good friend, and to be comfortable with himself. If your child seems to be experiencing social problems, here are some strategies an adult can suggest to help.
Help Teens Make Friends
No, you should not go make introductions personally. Can you see the eye rolling now? But there are ways to teach an adolescent how to make friendships themselves, which is a skill that will serve him well all through his life. Offer teens these strategies:
- Be approachable. If you give off an ‘approachable vibe’, you may find that you’re striking up conversations with new people wherever you go. Saying hello to the new student or the child next to you in class can be the start of a beautiful friendship. Attitude and appearance send strong messages to peers, so remember that the way you present yourself may be turning potential friends away. Body language, such as smiling and making eye contact, can make a big difference in how you are perceived. Showing respect for other people’s opinions and talents also makes you approachable. Letting others know that you think they’re funny makes them feel good and shows them you’re interested in what they think. It also shows you have a good sense of humor, which is one of the top things teens look for in a person, whether it’s a best friend or a boyfriend or girlfriend.
- Listen and ask questions. Other people like to know they’re being heard and that their ideas are appreciated. By being a good listener, you let others know that you value what they have to say and, by extension, who they are. You can let others know you’re paying attention by making eye contact while they’re speaking, nodding, then asking a question or two about what they’re saying.
- Give a compliment. Noticing something you like about someone and sharing it with him or her is a great way to forge a connection and start a conversation. But compliments must be honest and genuine.
- Join a club, team or gym. Having an interest in common with another person gives both of you something to talk about. It doesn’t matter if the interest is reading, soccer, or music – enjoying your hobby with others is fun and provides a sense of meaning and belonging. Clubs, teams and other groups also work toward common goals, which is inspiring, teaches you how to solve problems and helps you bond with others. Most gyms offer yoga, aerobics or even martial arts classes, which provide opportunities to meet people, perhaps finding a workout buddy.
- Volunteer. A strong desire to help others is attractive to most people, whether they’re looking for a friend or a date. It’s also extremely appealing to colleges and scholarship programs. Channeling this desire into a volunteer project is a great way to meet others, build community and work toward common goals. (Note to parents: you can read our previous blog about the benefits of and suggestions for teen volunteerism from December 2, 2009.)
- Get a Job. Getting a part-time job at a place where other teens work or frequent is another way to meet people and work toward common goals.
- Form a Study Group. Try asking a few others from your class to study together each week. Ask your teacher if you could pass around a sign-up sheet or make an announcement about the group after class. When your group gets together, bring snacks, share notes, chat about class, and quiz one another.
- Have a Party. Host an event. Invite all of your current friends and ask each of them to bring one of their friends. This will create a whole new pool of people to meet.
Help Teens Keep Friends
Although it may seem apparent to adults what makes a good friend, children do not inherently know these lessons, so take the time to point out how to choose and be a good friend. Remind them of the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. Ask them if they want their friends to lie to them, or to gossip about them, or to discourage all their ideas, or to share their secrets, or to point out all their faults? Every time they choose a course of action in their friendship, they should ask themselves if they would like their friend to do the same thing to them. In general, you can advise your teen to be honest, really listen, offer to help their friends, be there when their friends need them, make their friends feel special, and have faith in them. Notice and point out to them what things their friends are doing that builds their relationship, such as if they call to check on them when they’re sick or if they help clean up their room after a sleepover.
Help your child foster her friendships by including a friend occasionally in family activities, or inviting them over for family movie or game night. As a parent, you have a role in the success of your child’s friendships as well. Be kind to their friends when they are visiting, offering snacks or rides, and they will be more interested in spending time with your child again. Also, be sure your child understands that there’s no substitute for one-on-one time together, and that texting and emailing friends isn’t the same as spending time with them in person.
Expect drama. Adolescents can be moody and emotional, which can interfere with the best of friendships. This is an excellent time to help your child develop problem solving and conflict resolution skills. Help him or her to see the problem from the other child’s point of view or role play how he or she can develop a compromise.
Don’t Weigh Teens Down With Your Baggage
You may have wanted to be in the “in” crowd when you were young, but didn’t quite make it. Don’t let your own baggage keep your child from deciding who he or she is. Do not assume that a teen will be happier by taking part in certain “cool” activities or by joining a certain group of friends. Allow your child to discover activities that she enjoys, and to choose friends who are supportive of her and provide a positive influence.
Also encourage diversity. An adolescent should make friends with teens who share his interests or who are nice to be around. It’s probably better if his friends come from more than just one social group. Becoming part of one clique can cause your child to lose their individuality.
When Things Aren’t Working
There are two major problems that adolescents run into – not fitting in or developing a toxic friendship.
It’s really tough when your child doesn’t feel like they fit in. Kids don’t get to choose the people they see every day when they go to school. If they are thrown in with classmates who just don’t understand them, it can feel very frustrating and lonely. Unfortunately, this is one of those major life lessons where a teen must learn how to make the best of a tough situation. Encourage your teen to work on being confident with who they are. They should not try to transform themselves into a clone of everyone else, which will not help them make friends and will also make them feel “fake.” Suggest they send out positive energy to those around them and try to be open to other people. You don’t want your teen to refuse to be friends with anyone who isn’t like them. Remind them that they don’t have to be “accepted” by everyone at their school to have a great social life, and point out that not everyone at your job (or church or community group) “accepts” you, but you have lots of friends. Keep using the above strategies (such as expanding their social circle beyond school by joining a youth group or afterschool class) to help them find positive friendships.
It is inevitable that your child will develop a toxic friendship at some point in their life. Remind him that a real friend will make him feel better about himself or boost his self-esteem. Friends do not belittle each other or make each other feel bad about themselves. If he does have a toxic friendship, encourage your child to focus on his other friendships as much as possible. If the friendship ends, keep him active so that he doesn’t dwell on the lost friendship too much.