The future looks bright with "good friends" in the picture

We know that life during the pandemic has increased a sense of disconnection and isolation for many young people, which adds to spikes in concern for their social, emotional, and mental health and wellbeing. It is not unexpected, particularly for young people who are still exploring their identities, finding their tribe & building a sense of belonging to the community.

Parents often convey concerns about what they perceive as their child's lack of social connections with friends at school. This can be made more difficult for students who commence at Woodleigh part-way through the year, or if the family only recently moved to the area and they haven't transitioned from Primary School with someone they felt connected to. Then, of course, there is the additional complication of living in lockdown and learning remotely for much of this year.

Why Teenage Friendships are Important

For teenagers, good friends can be like a personal support group. Friends and friendships give teenagers:

  • a sense of belonging, a feeling of being valued and help with developing confidence
  • the importance of security and comfort that comes from being with others going through similar experiences
  • information about the changes that puberty brings, and what's going on physically and emotionally
  • a way to experiment with different values, roles, identities, and ideas
  • experience in getting along with people of the opposite sex
  • a chance to experience early romantic relationships
  • a social group to do new things with, especially things that are different from what families do

So how do we support young people to feel optimistic and hopeful that they will find their people? In the context of creating a 'vision' of what our young people want their future to look like, a conversation about what constitutes a 'good friend' may be timely and valuable.

What Makes a Good Friend?

The first step in making healthy and positive friendships is knowing what to look out for in a friend. Many teenagers will describe a good friend as someone who is there for you no matter what, doesn't judge you, is kind and respectful, and is a good listener. 

These qualities are hard to judge when you first meet someone. But, there are some signs to look out for. For example, how do they treat other people? Do they talk about others behind their backs? Do they put people down? If a potential new friend is making you or someone else cringe or feel uncomfortable, they're probably not going to be a great mate. As the old saying goes, 

"Surround yourself with the people you want to be like."

Helping Your Child Build Friendship Skills

Teenagers might be focused on their friends, but they still need your help and support to build and maintain positive and supportive friendships.

Good parent-child relationships tend to lead to children having positive relationships with peers. So being warm and supportive, staying connected, and actively listening to your child can help them develop friendship skills. You'll also be better able to support your child if friendship problems come up.

Being a good role model is important too. Parents who are keen to spend time with their friends are more likely to have children with lots of healthy friendships. It's also crucial for your child to see you looking out for your friends and showing that friendship is a two-way thing.

When you see them being fair, trusting, and supportive, praising teenagers encourages them to keep working on those positive social traits.

Helping Teenagers Who Find it Hard to Make Friends

All children are different. Not all will be outgoing and socialise with a big group of friends. If your child is like this but generally seems happy and content, there's no need to do anything.

However, if your child is struggling to make friends and worried about that, there are a few things you can do together:

  • Think about your child's interests and strengths. Encourage them to get involved with stuff they're interested in at school (like a sports team, band, choir, Woodleigh Committee, Eco Warriors, etc.) It is a great way to connect with like-minded people where they're guaranteed to have something in common to talk about. If they're not sure what is available, encourage them to chat with the staff in their Homestead.
  • Ensure your child feels comfortable inviting friends home, and give them plenty of space when they do.
  • It sounds cheesy, but you gotta be yourself. There's not much point in them trying to make friends while they're pretending to be someone they're not. It's unlikely that every person will get them, but there'll be plenty of people who do. And remember, we don't need loads of friends, just a few good ones.
  • Outside of school, think about a part-time job or volunteer community activity. Working, particularly in a place with other young employees or volunteers, can give your child a chance to practise social skills and build job skills for the future.

What Teenage Friendships Look Like

During the early teenage years, friendships become more intense, close, and supportive. The amount that teenagers communicate with their friend's increases. Teenage friendships tend to be based on personal similarity, acceptance, and sharing.

Girls tend to build closeness through conversation, and boys often prefer to share activities. But many boys enjoy the in-depth discussion, and many girls enjoy just hanging out and doing stuff together.

The internet lets teenagers make and maintain friendships through social media & gaming. It's a natural extension of their offline and face-to-face interactions. It's up to you as parents to discuss the boundaries rules around use.

Understanding the Balance Between Friends and Parents

Teenagers spend less time with their parents and much more time with friends. Some parents worry that these intense friendships will take over, and friends will become more important than family.

But your child still needs you and the secure base you provide. Being interested and available lets your child know that they can turn to you when needed. 

Teenagers do share a lot with and copy a great deal from their friends. For example, teenagers might change their behaviour, appearance, or interests to show that they belong to a particular group of friends. These changes usually fall in the range of 'normal' experimentation. As long as your child isn't doing anything destructive or dangerous, this kind of behaviour can be a positive sign that your child feels supported and confident enough to try something new.

Parents and friends play different roles in a teenager's life. You influence your child's long-term decisions to do with values and morals. Your child's friends are more likely to influence short-term choices, like appearance and interests. Strong relationships with both parents and friends help teenagers grow into well-adjusted adults with strong social skills.

Creating healthy and positive friendships is an integral part of any teenagers' journey to adulthood. Their relationship with peers helps them learn critical social and emotional life skills, like being sensitive to other people's thoughts, feelings, and wellbeing, developing empathy, and asserting clear personal boundaries. Modelling and teaching what constitutes a respectful relationship, albeit a friendship or an intimate nature, resonates from shared values and ideals at home and school. Hopefully, this will generate confidence and enthusiasm to imagine a future vision with "good friends" in the picture.

Acknowledgements and Further Reading

Director of Counselling