Understanding Teenage Friendships In Middle Schoolers

Your Teen Mag

The author of the new book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed offers her take on middle school friendships.

MIDDLE SCHOOL CHALLENGES: CHANGING FRIENDSHIPS

 By Jessica Lahey

Middle school is challenging for so many reasons. Academics become more difficult. Schedules fill up with activities. And, in what might be the most treacherous terrain for kids and parents alike, teenage friendships change.

The peers your tweens cling to as they enter the middle school may look a lot different from the ones they race out with on the other side. And that’s to be expected. Friendships change over time, not just because our children evolve, but because the very nature of friendship evolves with them.

Early in childhood, our children’s friendships arise out of proximity and habit. We toss our kids into the sandbox with our friends’ kids. And this arrangement works for everyone. As kids get older, however, they begin to build emotional connections with friends based on compatibility. Their shared interests, dreams, and goals begin to edge out mere convenience.

When they become tweens, middle school friendships become much more complex. And for good reason. Tweens use friendships as a way to try on an identity. Old friends offer sameness and comfort. But the pull of novel ideas of other kids begins to lure them in new directions. Tweens begin to build teenage friendships based on these new priorities. Some priorities, such as social status or fashion choices, may not make much sense to parents. But they are just as important to our children’s growth as shared history or values.

YOUR TWEEN’S FRIENDSHIPS INEVITABLY CHANGE.

All too often, the shifting sands of tween friendship result in broken hearts. Tweens feel dumped, shunned, abandoned, and betrayed. And friends move back and forth between comfortable old relationships and exciting new alliances. As any parent knows, our own personal heartache hurts. But the secondhand heartbreak we experience through our children is much more painful, mainly because it’s out of our control. The urge to intervene, to save and heal, is powerful, and while meddling around in tween social machinations may make us feel better, we must stay out of it.

Our children’s teenage friendships are not about us any more than their choice of what to wear to the middle school dance is about us. The tween years are for trying on fifteen different outfits—the blue shirt with the tan pants, the red skirt with the white top—to see what works best for a changing body, mind, and spirit on a given day.

Tweens move from relationship to relationship, adopting this detail of a friend’s personality, discarding that characteristic of another, until they have collected the essential elements of their identity. Some relationships will survive this process, and some will not, but every one is an important phase of the journey. We may not love every outfit our tweens try on, but it’s our job to be there when they emerge from the dressing room, when they do a little twirl and wait for us to tell them how grown up they have become.

Jessica Lahey

Jessica Lahey is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Atlantic and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. Find out more at jessicalahey.com.

Children Need Close Pals, Not Popularity

The Wall Street Journal

Research suggests that intimate friendships have long-term benefits, such as higher self-esteem and lower levels of anxiety and depression

Children Need Close Pals, Not Popularity
ILLUSTRATION: RUTH GWILY

Chasing after popularity can be stressful for children—and for their parents. A growing body of research suggests that they should give a different focus to their social energies. Having intimate friendships, it turns out, brings more long-term benefits, such as higher self-esteem and lower levels of anxiety and depression.

In fact, says Princeton, N.J.-based psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, the skills needed to be “popular” can be at odds with those needed for friendship, such as trust and support. The most popular kids often aren’t particularly well-liked because they engage in unfriendly behaviors (such as putting people down or gossiping) to maintain their status.

“Having one good friend is enough to protect against loneliness and to help bolster self-esteem and academic engagement,” says Cynthia Erdley, a professor of psychology at the University of Maine. In a 2011 study published in the Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, Dr. Erdley and colleagues followed 365 students as they transferred from elementary to middle school. Using self-reported questionnaires that measured things like peer acceptance, friendships, loneliness and academic engagement, researchers found that feeling accepted by peers, as well as having at least one quality friendship, served as unique predictors of both psychological well-being and academic performance during the middle-school transition.

Dr. Erdley says that one reason for the boost may be because “students who feel a sense of belonging don’t have to worry as much about what’s going on socially in the classroom, so they can save those cognitive resources to focus on their school work instead.”

In a longitudinal study published last month in the journal Child Development, researchers found that the quality of friendships during adolescence may have long-term effects. Researchers at the University of Virginia studied the friendships and mental health of 169 subjects, first at age 15 and then again at age 25. They used interviews and questionnaires to assess levels of anxiety, self-worth, depressive symptoms and feelings about social acceptance, as well as the quality of relationships. The participants’ friends were also interviewed.

The researchers found that those who had a more intimate bond with a best friend at age 15 reported less social anxiety, bigger boosts in self-worth and fewer depressive symptoms at age 25 than their peers. Adolescents who possessed a larger but less intimate social network reported higher levels of anxiety when they reached their mid-20s.

While teens who are less anxious and have higher self-esteem may find it easier to form strong friendships, the research finds that close, supportive friendships contribute to greater mental-health outcomes in the long term, no matter the baseline, says lead author Rachel Narr. Teens who have experienced good friendships gain the motivation and ability to build more supportive social networks in the future.

How can parents help their children to develop the skills for making and keeping close friends? Some tips:

Bolster conversational skills. Dr. Kennedy-Moore, the author of “Growing Friendships,” suggests a simple formula to keep a conversation going. When a potential friend asks how you’re doing, respond “Great!” plus one (that is, an additional fact, compliment or question). The “Great!” signals interest, and the statement shows that you’d like to keep the conversation going.

Read cues. To read people and situations well, children need to learn to recognize nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice, facial expression and body language. Researchers find that preteens who spend less time in front of screens are better with these cues because they get more practice. For parents, that means limiting electronics use and encouraging activities that require peer interaction.

Build rapport with “intimacy management.” To make a new friend, start by talking about superficial things, like class schedules, says Fred Frankel, a professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. Then test the waters by moving on to something more intimate, like difficulty with a teacher. If the peer is receptive, that’s an invitation to open up more and maybe seek advice.

Practice forgiveness. All friends make mistakes. “If it wasn’t deliberate, if it’s unlikely to happen again, and the friend is genuinely sorry, encourage your child to let it go,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. The secret to keeping long-term friendships, and being a good friend, is knowing when to forgive and move on.

When Another Child Wants to Be Friends and Yours Does Not

The New York Times

Photo

CreditiStock

Sometimes every parent needs advice. For our occasional advice column, we post readers’ questions that we know (or at least suspect) plague more than one parent. You — the readers — provide the advice: How have you made this work better in your family? I invite an expert to add to the discussion.

This quandary came via email, and concerns middle schoolers interacting with their peers — a trouble spot for many. Here’s the question:

My middle school child has been dealing with another child at school who is pursuing him — sometimes just hanging out near him, sometimes actively trying to get his attention by doing things like spraying water from the fountain at him in the hallways. My son doesn’t want to be friends, and he’s been getting in trouble for responding to the other boy in kind.

How do you help your middle schooler handle kids who are bothersome, frustrating, annoying or just not someone they want to be friends with? Sometimes, especially if that child has demonstrated some level of social awkwardness, it can feel like polite adult tactics won’t work. My son has talked to his teachers and even the vice principal and thinks the school understands that this other child is a challenge, but the situation hasn’t changed. How should I help my son respond better? Should I approach the school? I don’t want to intervene, but I’m wondering if I should.

“There are so many dynamics going on here, ” said Andrea Nair, a psychotherapist, parenting educator and the author of “Taming Tantrums.” “There’s a real disparity in maturity level at that age. ” In middle school, a child with a good amount of empathy who can understand other people, read their body language and consider what they’re thinking may be seated next to a child who is still entirely self-focused. That is part of what makes middle school interactions so tricky, she says.

As adults, we’ve had a lot of experience dealing with other people. Our children have not, and it’s tempting to want to jump in and solve the problem. Ms. Nair suggests considering what your child needs to learn to handle a situation on his own rather than just focusing on the immediate problem. Before she gets involved, “I always ask myself, am I going to help or hinder?”

With a middle schooler, she advises parents to make sure the child has tried everything before intervening. In this case, the son has approached adults at the school and now needs to have a strategy for handling the other student himself.

“Say, ‘I know this is tricky,’” she said. Let him know that everyone has trouble figuring out what to do in similar situations, and ask him to help think of ways to respond rather than to react. “A reaction is knee-jerk,” she says, and often something we regret. A response is something we have considered, that says the things we want to say.

Parents should let the child take the lead in coming up with responses, but can and should help. Most children will want to start with a nonverbal approach, because directly telling someone that you don’t want their company is hard. Children can lower their eye contact, turn their backs or look in the other direction when the other child is approaching, Ms. Nair says. If the other student begins a conversation your child doesn’t want to participate in but can’t easily physically leave (at a lunchroom table, for example), your child could respond with “mmm-hmmm” or take out a book.

If a more direct response is needed (as it may be here), help your child plan words that are appropriate to the situation. Remind him, too, says Ms. Nair, that things might get worse before they get better. “They’re likely to keep pushing and getting in your face because they’ve had a response before,” she says. “They’re expecting some kind of engagement.”

Finally, she suggests talking together about why this child might be doing these things. “There’s a difference between understanding and empathizing, and being O.K. with it,” she says. You can help your child learn that we can appreciate why someone might do something without having to like the person or the action.

How have you helped your child handle challenging middle-school social situations? Have you had to intervene with a school or even another family, and did it help?