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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. Helping your child/teen grow healthy friendships is essential. Through relationships, your 12-year-old child/teen develops a sense of belonging. They come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you, their teachers, and their peers.
Children/teens age 12 are in the process of carving out their identity, and their measuring stick is often their peers’ opinions and approval. This directly impacts their self-awareness.1 Whereas, in their earlier years, you defined their identity through your reflections, guidance, and stories, now peers will provide valuable input as your child/teen attempts to figure out what they are passionate about and what kind of person they are becoming.
Not surprisingly, children/teens who feel a sense of belonging and connection to their peers have a greater sense of wellbeing today and in the future. And, it’s not about the quantity of friends but about the quality. Research that examined teen relationships at the ages of 15 and 16 showed that those with one close friend rather than a large group (with fewer intimate relationships) reported higher self-worth and lower levels of anxiety and depression.2 But, friendships require time and care. Research also reveals that it takes about 50 hours to develop a casual friendship and more than 200 hours to develop a close friendship.3 So, when your child/teen is spending hours doing a whole of lot of – what you might deem – nothing with their pal, you can rest assured that the time spent with friends can be a nurturing source of support and growth.
Yet, there are challenges. “She’s always staring at me. I must look weird. Or maybe she just hates me,” you may hear from your eleven-year-old. You may feel like these comments are suddenly coming out of nowhere, but, in fact, this is a normal, healthy step in your child’s/teen’s development. This newfound ability to see from another’s perspective can be compared to wearing new glasses — though you can clearly see better, you are still adjusting to your new perspective. You may see flaws on your face that were never apparent before. You may also miscalculate what you think you are seeing and fall down a number of times before adjusting.
Your children/teens can become highly self-conscious as they learn about and attempt to explore the thoughts and feelings of their peers. They begin to hear and may even invent criticisms of their character, their appearance, and their interests, fearing the worst — rejection. These challenges arise as a normal part of your child’s/teen’s development. Learning how you can support their growing friendships can help you feel more competent as a parent or someone in a parenting role. The steps below will prepare you to help your child/teen through the ups and downs of growing healthy friendships.
Your child’s/teen’s ability to get along with others can shape their experiences in after-school activities, groups, and at school. You can offer them support as they exercise their newly forming social awareness and relationship skills.
Today, in the short term, focusing on creating healthy friendships can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to manage your relationships; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child/teen
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
Five Steps for Growing Healthy Friendships
This five-step process helps your child/teen in developing healthy friendships. It also builds important skills in your child/teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
Intentional communication and a healthy parenting relationship support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about friendships by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt their thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to friendships so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child/teen
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they’re thinking and feeling and understand when the cause of their upset is friendship related;
- can begin to formulate what it means to be a good friend;
- can think through and problem solve any challenges they may encounter ahead of time; and
- will have more motivation and courage to try to make new friends.
- Engage your child/teen in a conversation about friendship. You could ask.
- “Who do you count as friends? Why?”
- “What’s important about having friends?”
- “How can you start new friendships?”
- Practice actively listening to your child’s/teen’s thoughts, feelings, and worries about friendships. Use your best listening skills! Paraphrasing is a technique to ensure you are fully understanding what your child/teen is communicating. Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. It may seem awkward at first. But, this step is an important way for you to check your own understanding while simultaneously teaching children/teens how to listen for comprehension. It forces the listener to step up their game as they are going to be “on the spot” to communicate back what you have said. It might go something like this:
- Child/Teen: “I asked my friend for help in Spanish class today, and he just totally ignored me.”
- Parent modeling paraphrasing: “So I hear you asked your friend for help and got no response back.”
- If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can also reflect back the feeling implied. Parent reflecting feeling: “I get the sense you were hurt and disappointed that he didn’t help you. Is that right?”
- Learn about the meaning of friendship. In calmer moments with your child/teen, ask:
- “What are some qualities you look for in a friend?”
- “What are qualities you have that make you a good friend?”
- Make this a regular conversation in your household and particularly during time periods when your child/teen is struggling.
- Use your child’s/teen’s reading or shows to spur conversations about friendship. When reading or watching a show together, ask about characters’ choices and how they might support a friendship or hurt a friendship. Ask open-ended questions (with no right or wrong answers) so that your child/teen has the opportunity to consider what it means to be a good friend.
- Discuss the meaning of friendship as a whole family at a family dinner. Include all family members’ perspectives as you talk about what you value in a friend, how you try and act as a good friend, and how you go about making new friends.
Sometimes feeling the need for friends, especially when you feel like you don’t have many, can make a child/teen feel alone, vulnerable, and different. Reassure your child/teen that it’s normal for every person to want to grow friendships. Everyone goes through challenging times trying to find new friends.
Your worries are not always your child’s/teen’s worries. Listen closely to what is most concerning to them without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Social connections are vital to your child’s/teen’s learning and development. Relationships offer exercise in social and emotional skills like communication, cooperation, and conflict management. In tough times, friends can become an invaluable support offering care and understanding. Learning about what developmental milestones your child/teen is working on can help you better understand the role of friendships in their life and the challenges they may face.4
- Eleven-year-olds are trying to assert their independence imagining themselves in adult roles. As they are better able to see from another person’s perspective, they also increase their worries about being liked, who’s “in” and who’s “out,” and may engage in excluding others in order to gain popularity. This is an important time to promote inclusion and kindness. Also, eleven-year-olds need to realize that their peers are also worried about being liked to help grow their empathy for others. Friendships may come and go rapidly as they attempt to figure out where they feel they belong.
- Twelve-year-olds are gaining confidence and leadership abilities, and they may feel more secure in their friendships. They are eager to figure out more serious adult issues and where they stand. As they seek out risks, peers will exert pressure and also support. Disturbing news and social issues could preoccupy them more with their growing social awareness. They also have a lot of energy and need for sleep, so they may have less resilience and find themselves more rundown by stress.
- Thirteen-year-olds can have worries related to their newly acquired body changes and physical appearance. They can be highly sensitive as they work to define their independent identity while still being dependent upon you. They will feel an ever-greater sense of peer pressure, and though they may be pushing you away, they also require your continued support and guidance including hopes for your approval.
- Fourteen-year-olds may act invincible and like they know it “all.” Despite this, they still look to adults to set boundaries, negotiate rules, and listen to their needs. They are gaining interest in others as romantic partners and will have crushes, broken hearts, and worries related to the world of relationships. Friends will be highly important in their lives, and they may spend lots of time communicating through texts, gaming, and messaging.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model introductions for your child/teen. Find chances in the grocery store or at the bank during regular weekly activities, in which your child/teen accompanies you, to model introductions to people. You may go to the same store each week but not know the names of the employees that assist you. Introduce yourself and invite your child/teen to introduce themselves.5
- For example, you might say to the person at the bank, “Hi. I come in here weekly and you’ve helped me many times. What is your name? It’s nice to meet you.” You could then ask your child/teen to introduce themself to practice, or you could say, “This is my daughter, Amanda. She is a great help.”
- You may take the opportunity on the car ride home to reflect on the introduction. You might ask, “What did you notice that I said to the woman at the bank? Are there some people at school you might be able to introduce yourself to in a similar way?”
- There’s always a first day at a new activity, a new grade in school, or a new camp where parents are standing around saying goodbye to their children/teens. This is an ideal opportunity to begin making introductions. Introduce yourself and your child/teen to other parents and other kids. It can be as simple as shaking a hand and exchanging names. If this healthy risk makes you nervous, consider that it can be an important teaching tool to model for your child/teen how to overcome their fears and reach out to connect with others.
- Discuss your own friendship challenges. Though in the past, your child/teen may have not shown any interest in your friendships, now they may be keenly paying attention to how you manage your relationships. When you experience friendship challenges, talk them through with your child/teen. “June didn’t invite me to her party. Now I feel awkward when I talk to her. I’m wondering whether or not I should bring it up.” This gives your child/teen a low-risk opportunity to problem solve through a social situation. Be sure you include your values of what a good friend should act like in the conversation. They’ll need lots of practice making tough decisions, so you will be giving them an added opportunity.
- Learn strategies together! When you start a friendship, going up to a stranger can be nerve-wracking. Your child/teen may prefer to stay in their comfort zone. Brainstorming ideas together for ways to start up a connection can add to their comfort level and may even boost their motivation to take that healthy risk. Here are a few ideas to add to your brainstorm list:
- Find a common interest (sports, music, art, animals).
- Find a difference and learn about it. “I noticed you play the piano. I’ve never played. What do you like about it? I’d love to learn more.”
- Offer a specific compliment. “Those are great shoes. Where did you find them?” No one can resist responding to a compliment. This can be a winning introduction!
- Ask an opinion of something you are doing together, such as, “What did you think of science today? What did you think of gym class?”
- Ask, “Can I sit here?” or invite another to sit and eat. The lunchroom can be a highly stressful environment for kids who haven’t found a lunch “home.”
- Do magic. Yes, learn a basic magic trick and show others. Everyone loves a little magic!
- Learn listening strategies together by trying them out. Listening for understanding and connection is a skill set that can be built over time with practice and support. Modeling is a great way to teach.
- Actively listen. Try out active listening in which one person listens to fully understand what the speaker is saying and waits until the speaker is finished talking before responding. A response could be a simple “I get it.” Make eye contact and practice placing your full focus on the speaker. Providing wait time is particularly important with children/teens but can also be important with adults. It is normal to get anxious with your own needs and thoughts and jump in before the speaker can complete their thought. Providing wait time can allow for deeper thinking and better responses particularly when you ask questions of others. What you may perceive as awkward silence may actually provide the space for the speaker to formulate their thoughts and come back to you with a well-considered response.
- Paraphrase. Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. You might start, “I heard you say that…”
- Seek clarification. Seeking clarification is something that you may do naturally. Particularly if you are listening with the intent to learn something from the speaker, you seek clarification on details so that you are certain you understand. Practice seeking clarification with your child/teen and reinforce when they are able to do it on their own. You could say, “What did you mean when you said you weren’t happy this morning. What happened?”
- Practice questioning and commenting with empathy. Questioning or commenting with empathy takes practice. Instead of responding to a speaker with your own opinions or experiences, you focus solely on the content of what has been communicated. Avoid using “I” in your response. An example might be: “Today Mrs. Smith started a new project; we are going to be examining plant cells — I can’t wait.” As a parent, I might be tempted to respond with, “I did that when I was in school,” which focuses back on you. Instead you might say, “Okay. Sounds like you are excited about this project. What else are you going to do in this project?” This empathetic pattern of speaking and listening may come naturally to some, but to children/teens, it is a major challenge and requires experience. Your modeling will make a difference in their own comfort with this style of communication.6
- Though it may be difficult to recall your own learning experiences in how to talk with others, children/teens need to learn how to share and to converse. They need to learn what’s appropriate, what’s not, what’s too much, and what’s too little. This is why dialogue at family meals, on road trips, or after school is critical.
- Consider what you typically talk about. If it’s the logistics of life (when you have to go to karate, etc.), you might want to think about adding some additional topics to teach your child/teen important conversation tools. For example, you could talk about interests, passions, social connections, or situations. You could explore your child’s/teen’s curiosities like how things work and what things mean. Whether your child/teen is passionate about tigers or interested in bowling, get curious, ask questions, and discuss these interests. These simple conversations show your child/teen how to share appropriately.
- Keep your questions or comments brief and engaging. When you are intentionally initiating a family conversation to teach your child/teen how to share appropriately, ensure that it’s developmentally appropriate and something your child/teen can replicate easily. So, if you choose their favorite topic of crafting to discuss, then challenge yourself to share only one or two sentences, combine with a question, or simply ask one question. This is more of a child/teen-friendly, school-friendly way of conversing that your child/teen can learn. For example, “I love how you’ve organized your crafting supplies. Do you have a next project in mind?”
- Use the “Me Too!” rule so that each person can complete a thought without interruption.7 Agree with family members that when someone is saying something that is true for them as well, they make the “Me too!” sign – shake your thumb pointing back at yourself and pinkie pointing out at the other person. This prevents interruptions and also meets the needs of listeners who are eager to connect to what the speaker is saying.
- When you or your child/teen are in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing or arguing with another, it can be difficult to know how to respond in ways that won’t harm yourself or others. That’s why teaching and practicing “I-messages” can provide a simple structure for what you can say. This statement works effectively from partner to partner, from parent to child, and from child to child. Here’s an example: “I feel _____________(insert feeling word) when you____________ (name the words or actions that upset you) because____________________.” This helps the individual take responsibility for their own role and feelings in the problem while constructively communicating what they are experiencing.
- Here’s how it might sound if a parent is using it with their child/teen: “I feel frustrated and angry when you kept playing your video game because I had something important to say, and I felt ignored.”
- I-messages can be challenging for adults to recall, so certainly your children/teens need practice if they are going to use this effective tool. In addition to modeling it, you can also offer the word structure when you see a conflict between siblings. That prompting will help them use and practice it.
- Repair harm. A critical step in teaching your children/teens about friendships is learning how to repair harm they’ve caused (physical or emotional). And they will. Mistakes are a critical aspect of social learning. Plus, everyone has moments when they hurt another. But, it’s that next step that they take that matters in healing emotional wounds and repairing the friendship.
- Find small opportunities to help your child/teen mend relationships. Siblings offer a regular chance to practice this! If there’s fighting, then talk to your child/teen about how they feel first. When you’ve identified that they had a role in causing harm, brainstorm together how they might make their sister feel better. You might ask, “What could you do?” Allow your child/teen to supply answers, and you may be surprised at how many options they generate. Support and guide them to follow through on selecting one and doing it.
- If you tell or even command your child/teen to make an apology, how will they ever learn to genuinely apologize? In fact, apologizing or making things right should never be assigned as a punishment, since then the control lies with the adult and robs the child/teen of the opportunity to learn the skill and internalize the value of repairing harm. Instead, ask your child/teen how they want to make up for the hurt they’ve caused and help them implement their idea.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of cooperatively working together or trying out a new skill with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is necessary for children/teens to internalize new skills. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child/teen works hard to perform the new action.
- Use “I’d love to see…” When a child/teen learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “I’d love to see the types of questions you use to gather five different pieces of information about how your sister’s day went.” Set a goal for yourself to reintroduce one of the conversations or listening strategies you’ve taught to practice as a family at dinner.
- Recognize effort. Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you used an I-message with your sister when you got frustrated – that’s excellent!”
- Schedule friend dates or social outings. Friend dates, hangouts, and social outings can become invaluable practice for your child/teen in building connections and exercising the skills you’ve taught them.
- Learn about where your child/teen likes to see friends. Are there places to hang out socially that are desirable for your child/teen and their friends? Are they in supervised or public locations? Teens, especially, need spaces and places where they can be social, and if they don’t have them, they’ll create them. Offer opportunities for healthy hangouts by offering your home and being around to provide snacks, games, and supervision or suggest safe public hangouts like the ice cream shop, the bowling alley, or the roller rink.
- When it comes to figuring out who to invite over and when, follow your child’s/teen’s lead. Who knows why they are particularly attracted to another person and seek out their friendship? Perhaps it has to do with their developmental needs. But, it’s impossible to truly predict toward which peers your child/teen will gravitate. Who does your child/teen talk about at home? That’s a perfect place to begin.
- Discuss a few simple rules with your child/teen in advance. Instead of feeling like you have to highly supervise every moment, go over a few basic rules to set up for success. You might want to begin with saying, “Each family has different rules. Let’s figure out a few for our house that make the most sense. How about — play appropriate and safe games?” Then talk about what playing appropriate and safe means to you such as, “We keep the bedroom door open, we don’t watch R-rated movies, or we don’t watch movies at all.” When the friend arrives, welcome them in, share your excitement for a great time, and then partner with your child/teen to communicate those few rules you’ve discussed. You might say to your child/teen, “Do you remember what we talked about as our house rules?”
Children/teens have plenty of time and space for screens. Social gatherings should not be one of them if you want to maximize your child’s/teen’s social learning. Adopt the motto: “Friends before screens.” Perhaps get out some novelty games that haven’t been opened yet, put away the screens, and allow them time to work out what they’ll do. If you want to offer screen time during a hangout, save it for the later so that they get to interact first.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen some new strategies for making friends and growing friendships so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to learn about your child’s/teen’s free time at school and whether they are interacting with others. You could ask: “Who did you sit with at lunch today? What did you play at gym?”
- When your child/teen comes to you with an interpersonal problem such as with a friend or a teacher, reflect back feelings. Ask what choices your child/teen might have in communicating with this other person. Perhaps offer supportive language that will help them broach the topic. Then, show your confidence that they can manage their own communications and work through their own problems.
- Children/Teens are searching for privacy and trying to find their independence. They don’t like to be in the spotlight feeling questioned. Too many directed questions can feel like an interrogation and can actually close the door to future conversations about friends. So, if you ask open-ended questions out of curiosity, don’t expect an immediate answer. In fact, leave the question hanging. Your child/teen may return to you days later with a response having thought about what they might say.
- Avoid criticizing your child’s/teen’s friends or classmates, even if your child/teen is. Friendships and loyalties change quickly. Your child/teen may not confide in you if they feel you are going to judge. Listen with an open mind and open ears to show they can trust you as a confidant and support. If your child’s/teen’s friends are acting in harmful ways, ask good questions to help your child/teen think through what they believe is right and wrong.
- Learn about development. Each new age will present different social challenges. Becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child/teen is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes. “Remember we met Sam together on your first day of school, and you are still hanging out with him into middle school? He’s become a good friend.”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different friendship-building strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child/teen when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child/teen is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child/teen is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your teen manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s/teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You found a common interest with the new person you met — that is great!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you ask to sit by someone at lunch today, I will let you choose the movie we watch tonight” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You took initiative and found some people to sit with at lunch. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When your children/teens are using the communication tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you introduced yourself to the other girl at the store. Yes! That’s the way to initiate a friendship.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “Since you made a new friend this week, why don’t I call her mom and invite her to our house?” Encourage opportunities for fun and further connection.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.