Being back at school can be a challenging time for friendships. When we are children (at any stage of schooling) our friendships are often based on who is in our class. This can mean that returning to school may mean reuniting with friends, a change in friendship groups, or even having to confront previous conflicts or breakdowns in friendships. If this new school year also brings a new school, it can feel overwhelming and like starting friendships from scratch.
The stages of friendship
Those early years of developing friendships may have seemed simpler. Friendships change as we get older. Initial primary school friendships begin as playing alongside and having the same interests, they then move on to having friends because they are ‘nice’ and friendships at this stage are “fair-weather” friends – which can change on a daily basis and quickly rebound after a falling out.
Friendships move to a new level with the move to secondary school around the age of 11, and continue throughout secondary school. Friendships become more intimate, mutually beneficial and two-sided. You might also recognise that friendships don’t only differ during the different development stages of your children but that there is sometimes a difference between girls’ and boys’ friendships. Boys’ friendships can often seem much less complex, they tend to be less emotionally charged and intimate and are more transactional and based on shared activities. Girls’ friendships may tend to be deeper – girls will share more intimate details of their lives, which can often to lead to greater difficulties and hurt if a friendship breaks down.
Healthy friendships are vital
We all need friends. Young or old, male or female. We know that we are happier when we are part of a tribe. This tribe can be within our family but also often extends to our peers and the friendships we develop. If you have been following The Youth Fairy, reading our blogs or perhaps having met with one of our therapists, you will know that we talk about how we need to have positive interactions (this is one of our 3Ps:
- Positive Interaction
- Positive Action
- Positive Thoughts
The 3Ps, and in this case, positive interactions, help us to create a lovely flow of serotonin, the neurotransmitter which helps us to be happy, calm and positive individuals. This means that having good friends is an important factor in our children’s well-being.
Navigating friendships is not easy and it’s particularly difficult for our teenagers who are managing an influx of hormones. You may have noticed teenagers have a leaning towards overreacting, just a little. It’s something you may have observed if you ever find yourself in the presence of a teenager.
Now let’s be clear, these hormones are largely responsible for encouraging our teens to lean towards being in a more reactive state, driven by fear or pleasure and any previous survival tactics. Put this together with the fact that the others in their friendship circle are likely to be managing the same hormone influx – then you can see why they are often having to navigate relationship conflict.
When our children have good friendships, they are:
- better equipped to deal with challenges that life throws at them.
- more likely to be developing the skills of empathy, reasoning and intuition and are creating strong neural pathways to allow them to further develop these skills.
- building healthy boundaries, building resilience and learning how to successfully navigate conflict.
- discovering new ideas, new ways of doing things, developing values and a sense of self and independence, and creating an additional support network.
Friendship is good for our brain. Good friendship is good for our brain. Good friendships benefit us, they are good for our emotional and mental well-being. But good friendships do not come easily – they can be difficult to foster, manage and maintain.
As already mentioned, early friendships can be much easier, and as parents, our impact and influence on these friendships can also be greater and easier. Initially we support our children in developing ‘good’ friendships – we meet parents, exchange information and create supportive playdates (and some we may encourage more than others). However, as our children move to secondary school our influence lessens and our children become more independent in creating (and maintaining) friendships.
So, what can we do support our children in developing positive, healthy friendships once they become older?
- Be a friendship role model. We might not have the same direct influence over their friendships but our children and teenagers (even if they will never admit to it) still look to us for guidance. They watch us as significant adults in their lives and learn how we treat our friends (and how we allow our friends to treat us).
- Show and tell. Children may not always pick up the nuances of good friendship but you can demonstrate AND articulate what these look like. For example, when you need some support or you want to share good news, let them know you’re just going to arrange a coffee or have a phone call with your friend because they listen and they make you feel good. Let them know that good friendships take effort and you have to make time for your friend as well as them making time for you.
- Share how a friend listens without judging. They might give advice but they don’t put pressure on you to do anything you aren’t comfortable with. A good friend is a sounding board for you to talk through challenges knowing that you can be comfortable because they value you and you are relaxed in their company.
- Let them see you navigating conflict with a friend. You don’t always agree but you listen and then can come to an understanding. This is such an important skills for children and teenagers to learn.
- Support their friendships where you can. Sometimes your children may need encouraging to invite friends round (this can be especially important if your child is mainly developing online friends). If they are reticent, ask questions to understand the problem and help them to set boundaries you are both comfortable with (for example, perhaps they feel they don’t have any privacy at home). It can be difficult if they spend a large part of their time with online friends – these friendships are valid and may be extremely valuable, especially if your child is shy and feels more comfortable online. Be sure to discuss online safety and boundaries with them and to encourage them to have some face-to-face interactions.
- Help your child to understand their strengths. If they prefer to meet in big groups then help them to know what activities they can do with their friends. If their preference is to meet one to one, then support them in arranging lunch or other shared activity.
What to do when it all goes wrong…
It takes time to develop good friendships and along the way it is likely that there will be some bad friendships, some fallouts and some dramas.
Our teenagers in particular can be vulnerable. Whilst they are discovering their own identity, they need and desire acceptance and this can mean that they will make some bad choices, put up with bad behaviour and not speak out because they want to fit in and fear being isolated.
Having demonstrated to our children what good friendship looks like, it is also helpful to remind them to set healthy boundaries and to demonstrate this in our own friendships also.
The first step in supporting them through any conflict is to be available to:
- Listen to them. Quite often conflict or fallouts in friendships will blow over and so it is helpful for us to listen and not to pass judgement.
- Help them to reframe the problem. If it seems that this is a problem that can be overcome, help them to reframe the problem as a “friendship issue”. Give them the opportunity to explore how they are feeling, how they think the other person is feeling and what actions they might be able to take.
- Remind them good, healthy friendship adds something positive to their lives. It makes them feel good about themselves. Good friendships take time to develop but also help to develop trust, honesty and consideration of each other’s feelings. Sometimes there is conflict, but good friendships are honest and show forgiveness. Children are still learning the skills needed to recognise and foster good relationships and may not be able to see the red flags in a relationship which are potentially damaging.
REMEMBER a good friendship is supportive, it doesn’t make them feel bad and it is never okay for them to be treated badly. A good friendship is not manipulative, it does not bully (online or in person), it doesn’t spread rumours. A good friendship doesn’t make them feel negative or lead them towards behaviour that means they are entering into risky behaviour (such as drink, drugs, violence or suicidal behaviour).
A friendship that has any of the above red flags is unhealthy and your child may need support to remove themselves from this friendship.
If you are concerned about your child’s friendships or social interaction, you may find the following links useful:
You can contact your nearest therapist at The Youth Fairy for 1:1 support for your child at: www.theyouthfairy.com/fairies
Young Minds offers some great information and guidance on navigating friendships at: