It’s that time of year - love is in the air. While you may feel uncomfortable with the idea of your teen dating, you probably also hope your teen will eventually be in a healthy, stable intimate partnership in the future. So how can you help them develop the values and skills that will support a healthy romantic relationship in the future? Help them learn how to build meaningful, healthy friendships in the teen years.
Why friends from the teen years matter so much
Do you have any friends from high school who you feel you can go to for anything? Often, these friendships are the most enduring, accepting, and easy to maintain. Teenage friendships form at a time when we are exploring our identities and attachments outside of the family, and thus serve as a transitional protective factor as we figure out how to become independent from our parents So perhaps it is no surprise that studies have consistently shown that adults who grew up with a couple of deep, meaningful friendships in their teen years tend to have better mental and physical health.
However, even more interestingly, new research has revealed that teenage friendships with same-gender peers are better predictors for healthy adult romantic relationships than a person's previous teenage romantic relationship. The study leader, Professor Joseph P Allen, explains, “It’s the skills learned in friendships with peers of the same gender—skills such as stability, assertiveness, intimacy, and social competence — that correspond most closely to the skills needed for success in adult romantic relationships.”
Many parents trivialize or restrict the amount of time teens spend forming and maintaining their friendships. However, this is a critical part of a teen’s development that will influence not only their future romantic relationships, but also their future work relationships and adult friendships. So if your teen is obsessed with their best friend, that may not be a bad thing!
The makings of a healthy teenage friendship
More often than not, teen friendships can be fraught with drama, competition, meanness, and (unpleasant) surprises. Left unmanaged, these friendships can turn toxic and leave your teen feeling rejected, self-conscious, and anxious.
Healthy friendships, on the other hand, help your teen feel accepted and celebrate the uniqueness of others. Starting and keeping these friendships require maintenance and a variety of skills that will follow your teen into their adult friendships and romantic relationships:
Stability: the ability to maintain a long term connection in the friendship and be consistent in one’s words and actions
Assertiveness: the ability to set and maintain clear expectations for the friendship
Intimacy: the ability to share vulnerably, honestly, and receive support from someone, and vice versa to establish deep feelings of trust and acceptance
Social skills: the ability to be empathetic, thoughtful, and attuned to a friend’s needs and interests
Communication: the ability to get one’s thoughts and feelings across to the other person in an effective way that doesn’t put up defenses or incite conflict. A key part of effective communication is also conflict resolution.
Emotional management: the ability to manage uncomfortable feelings that may arise (e.g, jealousy, guilt, anger) in the course of the friendship
Shared interest: having shared interests that can foster growth towards a mutual goal
Worried about your teen’s friendships and want personalized guidance? Get connected with a 1:1 coach for free today.
How parents can help foster healthy friendships
While you can’t necessarily tell your teen who to be friends with, there’s a lot you can do to help them form healthy friendships:
Reflect on your own friendships: What are your strengths in friendships? Who are your closest friends? Which friends does your teen see you interact with the most? While it may not always feel like it, your teen is constantly observing and learning from your behaviors. If they see you calling your friends, offering and receiving support from them, and investing time in your relationships with them, your teens are more likely to do the same. So intentionally modelling the friendship behaviors you’d like your teen to adopt – and even going out of your way to let your teen see and overhear your interactions with friends – can go a long way. So what are you waiting for? Reach out to a friend today. It’ll be good for both you and your teen.
Consider your relationship with your teen: Your relationship with your teen is one of the first models they have for what intimacy, communication, and attachment looks like. Researchers suggest that listening well, being encouraging, handling discussions well and spending quality time with teens all predict good outcomes for their ability to make friends. Is there one of these areas you can improve in your relationship with your teen?
Model healthy conflict: As with any relationships, friendships need effective conflict resolution. To be able to resolve conflict, however, your teen needs to believe that conflict is normal and tolerable, and have the skills to resolve conflict assertively. Think about how your own feelings towards conflict and how conflicts are resolved in your home. Are they quickly forgotten about? Are you afraid of conflict? Do you discuss disagreements openly and constructively? Look for ways to consistently demonstrate healthy conflict for your teen when you disagree with your spouse or other family members. Then, when your teen faces a conflict in their friendship, they’ll be more likely to resolve it confidently and compassionately, while standing up for themselves.
Know your teen’s friends: Can you name your teen’s top 5 friends? Staying up to date with who your teen is hanging out with, what their mutual relationships are, and what their mutual interests are can give you opportunities to help your teen reflect on what they value in friends and help you detect early conflicts.
Friendship “breakups'' can be as traumatic as a romantic break up, and you’ll want to be there to support your teen if things turn sour. As teens develop, many develop new interests and values, so it’s likely your teen will shed a few friends along the way.
Counsel but don’t intervene: Some things need to be learned with personal experience. Your teen is navigating who they are and who their “tribe” should be. While you may not like their friends, try to avoid judgment. Instead, focus on supporting your teen through challenging friendships by encouraging them to practice conflict resolution, empathetic communication, and how to express their needs and boundaries.
Build their confidence: While your teen may be drawing away to focus on their peers, they still need your unconditional support and love. Help them reflect on their unique strengths and treat your teen with love, respect, and support. Discuss what they expect from their friends and what they would do if a friend violated their boundaries. On top of that, sharing activities you enjoy together, celebrating their strengths, and giving them your attention can all help your teen feel confident. When your teen believes they are worthy of love and respect, they will be more likely to walk away quickly from bad friendships.
Recognize the signs of toxic friendships: Discuss early and often about the traits of good friendships versus toxic friendships. Toxic friends tend to follow patterns of:
Be on the lookout for any signs of your teen being in a toxic friendship:
Feeling lonely and isolated
Seeming stressed and irritable
Becoming low in self-confidence and self-esteem
Taking a lot of blame for the other person’s behavior
Feeling confused or surprised by their friend
Growing isolated from other friends
If you suspect your teen is in a toxic friendship, don’t jump to ban their friendship - that usually inspires a power struggle. Start a conversation and help your teen practice self care, enforcing boundaries, and being direct while reflecting on what they enjoy versus dislike in their friendship. Remind them of the healthy traits of a friendship, and ask them to problem solve how they can get that in their friendship. Over time, your teen will eventually see that their friend isn’t able to meet the standards of a healthy friendship.
Want support to improve your relationship with your teen? Get connected with a 1:1 coach for free today.