Did you know that friendship is one of the most important measures of adolescent development and mental health? Several recent studies confirm that close, supportive teen friendships correlate with everything from increased empathy and self-esteem to lower rates of depression and anxiety. Friendships even provide protection against the adverse effects of bullying and the stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, friends may matter even more than parents when teens need emotional support. But as any parent knows, teen friendships are complex. It’s not easy to know when and how to get involved, or to make sure our teens are getting the benefits of friendship while also staying safe. Here are our five top tips for helping your teen find and keep the right kind of friendships.
1. Encourage extracurriculars.
Extracurricular activities are the perfect place for teens to make friends because the structure they provide can strengthen friendships. It’s easier, for example, for shy teens to start conversations with others who have similar interests and schedules. Working towards shared goals helps teens bond and learn to support each other. Extracurricular activities also include built-in support from parents, coaches, or teachers– helpful for things like dealing with conflict. And friends who are passionate about the same things are more likely to motivate your teen to do their best. In short, when your teen finds their niche, they’re also likely to grow great friendships.
2. Advocate for authenticity.
Authenticity means being true to your own identity and values: not always easy when teens are still figuring that stuff out for themselves. But parents can remind teens the importance of being their whole selves and the difference between fitting in and belonging. According to researcher Dr. Brené Brown, “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” Teach your teen to do a gut-check whenever they’re uncertain: “Do I feel safe being my whole self around this person? Is there any part of me that’s not welcome or supported?” Encourage your teen to reserve their inner circle for friends who have earned their trust and with whom they can be authentic.
3. Teach them how to handle conflict.
Because friendships form such an important part of their identity, conflict feels like a major crisis when teens aren’t prepared to deal with it. But when relationships are strong, conflict can actually make them even better. Nothing builds trust and helps us understand each other like resolving a disagreement. First, equip your teen to feel, talk about, and take responsibility for their own emotions. Share tools like mindful breathing for self-care and self-regulation. And when conflict comes up at home, practice basic skills like active listening, using “I” statements, and offering honest apologies. This helps teens manage the stress of conflict and feel empowered to deal with it in a proactive way.
4. Prioritize positivity.
Sometimes teens pick friends who cause concern. Maybe they behave disrespectfully, use language you’re not comfortable with, or just seem a little too mature for your teen. In cases like these, immediately forbidding a friendship will probably cause your teen to respond with anger and resistance. Instead, stay engaged by asking questions, like what they admire about that person and what they enjoy doing together. Invite their friends to join in family gatherings, and get to know them by asking genuinely curious questions. Often, teens who are a little rough around the edges just aren’t used to interacting with a caring adult. Your presence might be enough to bring out the best in them. And if there’s a real reason for concern, you’ll see it sooner.
5. Support their style of socializing.
Some teens are social butterflies; others prefer quiet hangouts with their best friend or a small group. Some sign up for every after-school activity, others find their tribe in online communities. Just remember that teen friendship is about quality, not quantity. Researchers say having just one or two close friendships can be as good or better than having a large group of friends And while online friendships are fine, teens do need IRL relationships to develop social skills. Whatever their socializing style, make sure your teen knows their friendships matter to you. Let them know you’re happy to host, drive, or help plan things they think would be fun. Get to know their friends and what matters most to them. Give them opportunities to make their own choices while knowing you always have their back.