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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 teen’s success. Helping your 16-year-old teen grow healthy friendships is essential. Through relationships, your teen develops a sense of belonging. They come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you, their teachers, and their peers.
Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 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 teen attempts to figure out what they are passionate about and what kind of person they are becoming.
Not surprisingly, teens who feel a sense of belonging and connection to their peers have a greater sense of wellbeing now 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 of less intimate relationships) reported higher self-worth and lower levels of anxiety and depression.2 But, friendships require time and care. Research reveals it takes about 50 hours to develop a casual friendship and more than 200 hours to develop a close friendship.3 So, when your 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 fifteen-year-old. Comments from friends or peers may consume your teen’s mind. Criticism can seem devastating. You may feel like these comments are over-dramatized, but, in fact, this is a normal, healthy step in your teen’s development.
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, ultimately fearing the worst — rejection. Research backs this up. As social awareness grows so too does social anxiety. Peers influence what’s acceptable and what’s popular. There is a comparing process that occurs naturally and with that, negative self-evaluation. Your teen may begin to see their haircut from the vantage of their peers’ perspective and might begin to wonder if it’s too short, too long, or too whatever! Though your teen might have stumbled into a peer accidently in the hallway and struck up a fast friendship in earlier years, now they may struggle to initiate a conversation or to begin connecting with another.
These challenges arise as a normal part of your teen’s development. Whether your teen or emerging young adult is fifteen or nineteen, friendships will become critical to their motivation to attend and work hard in school, will add to their sense of enjoyment and ability to engage socially, and will even affect their physical and mental health and wellbeing. Humans are social beings, and learning how to connect with and care about others is core to development. Learning how to support their growing friendships can help you feel more competent in your role as a parent or someone in a parenting role. The steps below will prepare you to help your teen through the ups and downs of growing healthy friendships.
Whether it’s your fifteen-year-old crying that their friend ignored them or your nineteen-year-old experiencing hurtful comments on their internet post, your teen’s current friendships (or lack of) can become your daily challenge. Establishing a trusting connection with your teen and teaching them vital skills will help them grow healthy friendships.
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 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.
This five-step process helps your teen in developing healthy friendships. It also builds important skills in your teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your 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 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 teen in a conversation about friendship. You could ask:
- “What are some characteristics you look for in a friend?”
- “What makes you a good friend?”
- “Who do you count as friends? Why?”
- “What’s important about having friends?”
- “How can you start new friendships?”
- Practice actively listening to your 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 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 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 was said. It might go something like this:
- Teen: “I asked Micah today if he’d sit with me at lunch, and he just walked away and sat with another group.”
- Parent modeling paraphrasing: “So, I hear that you asked Micah to sit with you at lunch, but he chose to sit with others.”
- 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 surprised, hurt, and disappointed that he didn’t sit with you. Is that right?”
- Learn about the meaning of friendship. In calmer moments with your teen, ask, “What do you think it means to be a good friend?” Make this a regular conversation in your household and particularly during times when your teen is struggling.
- Use your teen’s reading or shows to spur conversations about friendship. When reading together or reflecting on a book they are reading for school, ask about characters’ choices and how they might support a friendship or destroy a friendship. Ask open-ended questions (with no right or wrong answers) so that your 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 to 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 teen feel alone, vulnerable, and different. Reassure your 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 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 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 teen is working on can help you better understand the role of friendships in your teen’s life and the challenges they may face.4
- Fifteen-year-olds are in the final year of the major physical changes that occur in puberty. They may feel a bit insecure and sensitive to criticism. They may be preoccupied with peer interactions and impressions. Homework and academic goals are less important than socializing but still important. Teens may fear failure in front of their peers and may seek to avoid certain projects or tasks to avoid that feeling of humiliation. Though peers are highly influential, teens at this age still look to you for encouragement that they can handle the bigger expectations and work load. The peer group can present all sorts of worries including who’s in the “in” and “out” crowds, to whom your teen is attracted, and with whom your teen desires to build friendships. Strong friendships can serve as a key support and also help motivate your teen to work hard in school, so your coaching and support of their connections with friends can also make a difference in their sense of wellbeing.
- Sixteen-year-olds are at the end of the awkwardness of their new physical being and are beginning to feel and appear more confident in themselves and who they are. They may have new important goals outside of school and, along with them, worries related to learning to drive, getting a driver’s license, getting a new part-time job, or trying out a romantic partnership. All these are critical steps for their exploration of adult life. They also may be measuring themselves on the accomplishment of these goals in relation to their peers.
- Seventeen-year-olds have more serious pursuits on their mind and may become highly focused on their academic and life goals as they consider the fact that their graduation is coming up and they’ll need to face life after high school. At times, they may seem to feel invincible and, perhaps, overly confident while at other times, they might resort to behaviors from earlier years, seeming fragile and scared. It can become a highly stressful time, so your support during this time is critical. Friendships will likely be tested as your teen makes plans for life after school that may or may not align with friends’ plans.
- Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds are now considered emerging adults gaining the ability to vote and are socially recognized as adults. Many will be entering college with a brand new set of academic goals and expectations. It’s likely your emerging adult will be leaving some friendships behind as peers make different decisions for their future. They may also be attempting to make new friends and create relationships that will support them in their new environment. These relationships can become a critical new support as they serve as the first “adult” friendships in their newly established life. At times, they may exude confidence while at other times, they may feel highly insecure and run to you needing comfort and security. This is a time for redefining your relationship, so paying close attention to their needs, offering your assurance that they are ready and can do it on their own while allowing for their independence are some of your most important roles.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your 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 teen. Make introductions in your community. Find chances in the grocery store or at the bank during regular weekly activities in which your teen accompanies you to model introductions to people. You may go to the same store or bank each week, but you may not know the names of the employees that assist you. Introduce yourself and ask your teen to introduce themselves as well.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 teen to introduce themselves 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 you don’t know at school you might be able to introduce yourself to in a similar way?”
- Make introductions at school or extracurriculars. There’s always a first drop off at a new activity, a new grade level, a new school where parents are standing around saying goodbye to their teens. You may have reached the point in which your teen pushes you away quickly. This is common as they exert their independence. But, if not, it can be an ideal opportunity to begin making introductions. Introduce yourself and your teen to other parents and teens. 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 teen how to overcome their fears and reach out to connect with others.
- Discuss your own friendship challenges. Though in the past, your 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 teen. “June didn’t invite me to a party I know she’s throwing. Now I feel awkward when I talk to her. I’m wondering whether or not I should bring it up.” This gives your 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 teen may prefer to stay in their comfort zone even if friendless. 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, as in: “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 particularly teens. This can be a winning introduction!
- Ask an opinion about something you are doing together. “What did you think of science today? What did you think of our upcoming project?”
- Ask, “Can I sit here?” Or, invite another to sit and eat. The lunchroom can be a highly stressful environment for teens who haven’t found a lunch “home.”
- Listening for understanding and connection is a skill set that can be built over time with practice and support. Modeling these skills can offer a powerful lesson. You may just want to incorporate a few of the following strategies into your parenting practices. Directly teaching these to your teen can offer them great social assets.
- Actively Listen. Active listening is listening to fully understand what a person is saying, both thoughts and feelings. Wait until the person is clearly finished. A response could be a simple “Yes!” or “Uh-huh” or “I get it.” Make eye contact and practice placing your full focus on the speaker. Providing wait time is particularly important with 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, as in the modeling example above, 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.
- 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 to understand. Practice seeking clarification with your teen and reinforce when they are able to do it on their own. You, for example, might say to your spouse: “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, you 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 excited you about it?” This empathetic pattern of speaking and listening may come naturally to some, but to 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, 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 teen important conversation tools. For example, you could talk about interests, passions, social connections, or situations. You could explore your teen’s curiosities like how things work and what things mean. Whether your teen is passionate about history or interested in bowling, get curious, ask questions, and discuss these interests. These simple conversations show your teen how to share appropriately.
- Keep your questions or comments brief and engaging. When you are intentionally initiating a family conversation to teach your teen how to share appropriately, ensure that it’s developmentally appropriate and something your teen can replicate easily. So, if you choose their favorite topic of design 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 teen-friendly, school-friendly way of conversing that your teen can learn. For example, “I love how you’ve organized your books in your room. Do you have a next project in mind?”
- When you or your 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 teen, and from teen to teen. 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 teen: “I felt 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 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.
- Promote a “Safety Buddy” policy. By now, your teen has cultivated more independence in their social life. They may be attending unsupervised parties. They may be driving on their own. In order to keep your teen safe, always identify a close friend that can become the safety buddy for the evening. Establish an agreement before going out that if either one of you is uncomfortable or feeling unsafe, you will find an easy way to exit together. Talk about truthful cover stories that can serve as valid excuses to leave. “We have another party to go to” (that could mean just a best friend sleepover). “We have to return the car,” “We have another commitment” (to go home!). Friends can serve as an important safety net as teens navigate challenges with peers.
- Repair harm. A critical step in teaching your teen about friendship 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 teen mend relationships. Siblings offer a regular chance to practice this! If there’s fighting, then talk to your 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 teen to supply answers, and you may be surprised at how many options they generate.
- If you tell or even command your 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 teen of the opportunity to learn the skill and internalize the value of repairing harm. Instead, ask your 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 teens to internalize new skills. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your teen works hard to perform the new action.
- Use “I’d love to see…” When a teen learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “I’d love to see how you start a conversation with our new neighbor.” Set a goal for yourself to reintroduce one of the conversation or listening strategies you’ve practiced as a family at dinner.
- Recognize effort. Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you used an I-message statement with your sister when you got frustrated. That’s communicating assertively.”
- Schedule friend dates or social outings. Friend dates, hangouts, and social outings can become invaluable practice for your teen, building connections and exercising the skills you’ve taught them.
- Learn about where your teen likes to see friends. Are there places to hang out socially that are desirable for your teen and their friends? Are they in supervised or public locations? Teens 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 or the recreation center.
- Discuss a few simple rules with your teen in advance. Instead of feeling like you have to highly supervise every moment, go over a few basic rules to set them 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 — we leave doors unlocked, we watch movies rated PG 13 or under, and we only play appropriate games?” Then, talk about what each of these mean and why they are important. When the friend arrives, welcome them in, share your excitement for a great time, and then partner with your teen to communicate those few rules you’ve discussed. You might say to your teen, “Do you remember what we talked about to keep you both safe?”
Teens have plenty of time and space for screens. Social gatherings should not be one of them if you want to maximize your 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 later so that your teens get to interact first.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your 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. Parents naturally offer support as they see their teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to learn about your teen’s free time at school and whether they are interacting with others. You could ask: “Who did you sit with at lunch today?”
- When your teen comes to you with an interpersonal problem (whether with a friend or a teacher), reflect back feelings. Ask what choices your 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.
- 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 teen may return to you days later with a response having thought about what they might say.
- Don’t criticize your teen’s friends or classmates, even if your teen is. Friendships and loyalties change quickly in the teen years. Your 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 teen’s friends are acting in harmful ways, ask good questions to help your 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 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. 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 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 is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your 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 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 went and found a common interest with the new student — Love seeing that!”
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 introduce yourself at the picnic, I will let you choose the movie we watch tonight” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You found a way to meet some new people at the picnic. 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 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 teen is making an effort and let them know that you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “Since you made a new friend this week, why don’t you call her and invite her to come over 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 teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for 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.