Friends give your teen a sense of belonging and are a vital source of emotional support. School friendship issues take many forms and can be painful and incredibly distressing for your child.
This article provides a guide for you to help navigate your teen through friendship problems at secondary school, to allow them to develop good friendships and learn how to recognise unhealthy ones.
Whether you feel your teen has some friends, no friends or the wrong kind of friends, the attached workbook will help them to find solutions.
The workbook is aimed at children aged 9+ years old.
School Friends: Why Are They So Important?
It goes without saying that friendships are very important for young people. As our teens spent a huge chunk of their waking hours in school, it’s important that they feel they have school friends they feel they can connect with while they are there.
Without at least one school friend, thriving at school is difficult and many teens feel isolated and lonely.
School Friends and Parent Input: The Changing Balance
As your teen moves from middle childhood to the teenage years, they slowly step back from you as parents and start to gain a little more independence.
This means that generally school friendships and wider friendships take on more importance.
Your teen is more likely to rely on friends for support and advice as they get older, because friends are more connected with the issues teens face.
Friendship Problems: the Complexities of the Teen Years
Teenage friendships can be complicated.
Learning how to make and maintain friendships or groups of friends during such an uncertain period and understanding what makes a healthy friendship can be challenging.
The rules often change very quickly and some children may struggle to keep up. For example, when they were younger friendships may have been based more on common interests such as playing the same game together. As they mature, friendships develop more focus on mutual understanding and support.
Teen friendships and communication tend to become less concrete than earlier childhood friendships, too. Communication becomes more complex and nuanced. For example, a person may say one thing but mean another. Or they may say one thing to you, but another thing behind your back.
As a parent, you can ensure that your child develops the right social skills and help them to navigate their friendship issues and manage the subtleties.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Friendships at Transition Points
Is your teen moving from primary school or middle school to high school?
Do you feel like your teen might need some guidance with friendships?
The last year before secondary school can be daunting for your child, as they worry about what a new school year might bring. Particularly if your teen is moving school, they might find the aspect of making new friendships worrying.
They may need to deal with the end of some long term friendships, whilst trying to create news ones.
This is very tough for children whose brains are not yet fully developed to cope with big emotions.
Friendship Problems at Secondary School
Even students who were socially confident in their earlier years may experience friendship problems at secondary school.
When young people move up to secondary school, their primary school friends might move to different schools which can interrupt the stability of their friendships.
They may or may not make some initial friendships at the beginning of their new school life.
But in almost all cases there will be significant “reshuffling” in these friendships and friendships groups. In our experience at Everlief Child Psychology, friendships seem to eventually settle down and become more stable at around age 14-16 years old.
Friendship Issues: The Reshuffle
As young people enter adolescence, they are figuring out their identity.
At first they might think a friendship with person X is great. A few months later they may realise that they no longer have much in common with X.
Perhaps X likes Roblox but they have moved on to new games.
Perhaps X is very sporty, whereas your child is more arty.
The reshuffle can be very painful if your child is the one rejected. Whilst everyone figures out who they are and which pairings or groupings are the best match, many young people may feel lonely, ashamed, confused, angry… The list of complex emotions goes on.
Group dynamics – rather than one on one – can be even more complex. Your child may be unsure which group to be part of and may hover around the edges. From this point, it can be hard to be accepted into a group which is already settled and established.
Your child may be an established member of a group but may realise that this group is not right for them. It can be hard to know what to do; how to withdraw from one group and find a group that is a better fit.
Friendship Issues: Social Media and Online Interaction
Social media also becomes a common feature of a young person’s life in adolescence.
Whilst social media can help keep teens connected, it can also lead to a feeling of social exclusion.
For example, your child learn about events that they have not been invited to.
Bullying is more likely online.
It’s easier to make a mean or thoughtless comment when you can’t see the other person’s reaction and the pain it causes. It’s easy to write a comment in a couple of seconds and press send without thinking through the consequences.
Even if bullying or rejection are not intended, online interaction is more difficult to figure out.
A message or comment can be interpreted in many different ways. You can’t see the person’s face or hear their tone of voice.
Were they being sarcastic or genuine?
This can be confusing and upsetting for teens, who are still learning about social interactions.
Online interaction is harder to switch off from. You are expected to be available 24-7. This can create social pressure.
Many young people feel that if they don’t check their phone, they may miss something crucial, like a party invite.
School Friendship: The Importance of Self-Understanding
Being ourselves in a true friendship leads to a feeling of being completely relaxed and comfortable in front of others. We can act and speak without having to worry about rejection or harsh judgement.
Does your child have friends like this?
If not, it’s important to work towards this as a goal, and the teen friendships workbook below will help.
The absolute key to making friends who your child can feel “themself” with, is to present the true version of themself in the first place.
It involves self-understanding.
If your teen tries to be someone else or someone they think their friends want them to be, the friendship is not built on honesty and will not be a healthy friendship. But this can be a huge challenge for young people.
Firstly, many young people are still forming their “selves”. They haven’t yet figured out who they want to be and what’s important to them.
You can help them with this.
In the accompanying workbook, there is an exercise about values. By identifying what’s important to them, your child will be more conscious of how they want to live their lives. They are more likely to choose friends with similar values.
School Friendships and Self Acceptance
True self-acceptance involves not only being clear on who you are and what’s important to you.
Self-acceptance is the courage to live your true self, even you feel different to others, and even if this risks negativity or rejection.
This is the most challenging aspect of friendships.
What if everyone rejects the real me?
Your child may face a dilemma. Do I present a different image, to avoid being rejected or alone?
Or do I present the real me and wait until true friends come along?
This can be an incredibly upsetting time for young people if they find themselves in this position. Feelings can range from uncomfortable to heartbroken.
If your child feels this way, make sure they know that:
- They are not alone. Many young people face (and have faced) this issue and it is extremely common.
- They will eventually find their “crew”. They will find friends who accept them for exactly who they are. They will feel comfortable and accepted.
- People get kinder as they get older. Adolescence is the hardest time for friendships because of changing senses of identity, reshuffling of dynamics, and still-developing moral compasses. From roughly the age of 16 onwards, people tend to respect and accept others more readily, embracing differences.
Our article called When Your Child Doesn’t Fit In gives more in-depth advice on this topic.
Friendship Issues at School: Frequently Asked Questions
How can I help my child if they have no school friends?
Having no friends is not always a bad thing. It might mean that your teen has not met anyone that is similar to them in their year group.
Whilst the school setting is the perfect place to make new friends, finding good friends is partly reliant on luck.
Perhaps there is nobody in your child’s year group who is passionate about Greek mythology and classics like them.
Perhaps your child’s passion is music, but they go to a small school where many people are sporty but few are musical.
One thing you can do is help broaden your teen’s social circles by encouraging them to take up a new social group or hobby outside of school. If your teen isn’t motivated to do this, don’t force them if they do not feel ready.
Make sure your teen knows that friendships do not just form overnight. Friendships flourish and shape themselves naturally over time. A useful place to start is reading the ‘Friendship Making: Top Tips’ page from the workbook (pages 5 and 6).
The friend scavenger hunt on page 17 may also help your teen when they enter new environments to find friends.
The scavenger hunt encourages your child to find a person who fits each of the categories. This helps them to open up conversations and can allow them to get to know other people.
By stepping out of their comfort zone in this way, they will build their social confidence.
How can I help my child when they are spending time with the wrong type of friends?
You might feel like your teen is in the wrong peer group or has some toxic friendships.
Toxic friendships are those in which your child cannot feel relaxed or feels they have to “be” someone else. Toxic friendships can lead to your child being pushed or persuaded into doing things they are uncomfortable with.
Your child may find be drawn to a particular group because it feels fun or exciting.
But maybe you feel that this group don’t have your child’s best interests at heart.
Perhaps your child is vulnerable to making poor decisions and getting into trouble when with these friends.
Mutual support and acceptance is the main difference between a real friendship and a “fake” or superficial friendship.
Start by exploring the difference between a superficial friend and an actual friend. The work book will help you with this.
Next, use the workbook to establish what traits they are looking for in a friendship (see page 15 and 16 for this).
Your child should then reflect on their current friends. How many of their desired traits does each of their friends have?
This activity might help them to realise which of their friendships they want to put more effort into.
They might also decide to talk to some of their friends about an aspect of their friendship that is not working so well.
Working through pages 21 and 22 will help with this. It asks your teen to rank their friends into ‘best friend’ ‘very good friend’ and ‘good friend’ categories.
It then asks them to think about whether their friend would put them in the same category and how this might affect the day-to-day quality of the friendship.
Finally it gives them 10 questions, which you can go through together to help them reflect on the quality of their friendships.
The friendship flower activity on page 18 can also help with your child’s understanding of true friends. The friendship flower promotes the idea that friends should add to their life and help them to ‘grow’ and ‘blossom.’
How can I help my child when they don’t know what makes a good friend?
Completing the activity in the workbook below called ‘Wanted: A Good Friend’ will help your teen to work out what they want and need from friends.
They will reflect on what kind of friendship they are looking for, what qualities they believe are important in this type of friendship and what they can offer in return to build the friendship.
Does your teen may know what they are looking for in a friend?
Your child may want or need different types of friendships for different situations. For example, they may want a netball friend to train with and support one another in their sporting ambitions. But they may also want a best friend with whom they can hang out, share their problems, and totally relax.
How can I help my child understand the difference between banter vs bullying?
Banter is the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks. Bullying is hurtful, repetitive, intentional and involves an imbalance of power. If they think the banter is hurtful, the person knows it is hurtful and it seems repetitive, it might be a sign that this is a ‘so-called’ friend is actually a bully.
How can I help my child when they are not a good friend?
Your teen needs to understand what they can bring to a friendship. The activity on page 19, ‘You Got a Friend in Me’ can help your teen to do this.
For example, your child might spot that they are:
- A great listener
They can also compare their own friendship strengths with those they have added to their ‘recipe for a good friend’ (page 15 and 16).
They probably have many of the traits that they value highly in others.
How can I help my child with regular falling out and conflict in their school friendships?
It’s vital that young people learn conflict resolution skills. Many of these skills come with practice and experience. They include:
- Knowing when to stand up for what you believe is right, and judging when it is not appropriate to do this. For example, if you believe the maths teacher has got a question wrong, it isn’t appropriate to argue with them.
- Judging when to stop in a conflict and concede or apologise.
- Accepting when you are wrong or you have done something wrong.
- Choosing the right words when you raise a concern, to get a positive response.
How skilled is your child in each of these areas?
Do they have insight into their own role in conflicts?
If your child is regularly involved in conflicts with friends or peers, they may lack insight into what’s causing this.
Knowledge is power, so if you can increase their awareness of repeating patterns, they can choose to respond differently next time.
Ways to increase your child’s insight into repeating patterns of conflict include:
- Open discussion
- Creating visuals e.g. draw a diagram of what happened in a recent conflict and talk it through
- Use of social stories or comic strip conversations. These are particular evidence-based techniques, often used to support autistic people.
- Role play
Friendship Issues at School: Key Takeaways
Below are some of the most important “take-away” principles for you to discuss with your child.
1. Aim For Authentic/Genuine School Friendships (Quality Over Quantity)
A common friendship problem at secondary school is knowing the difference between ‘so-called’ friends and genuine, supportive friends.
If your teen can understand the difference, they are more likely to build true and strong friendships.
These types of friendships will add to your teen’s life and contribute to their happiness. The best teen friendships will allow your teen to talk honestly and openly without the fear of being judged.
It is also important to note that friendships are two-way. Help your teen to work out what makes a good friend and also how they can be a good friend in return.
2. School Friendships Will Change Over Time
Some end, and others change.
Certain friends may become more important at some points during adolescence, whilst other friendships fade a little.
As your teen starts to change and mature, they will notice their friendships changing. This is perfectly normal.
As a parent, you can help to normalise this. You can also help them to find out what they are getting out of their friendships and whether this matches what they actually want from their friendships at this time.
See page 26, ‘Friendships Changing and Ending’ in the workbook for more.
3. Conflict is Normal in Many High School Friendships
Teens will have disagreements. It is perfectly natural.
But some teenagers get into repeating patterns of conflict.
They need to have some insight into their own role in conflict.
They also need to develop the skills to manage conflict effectively.
You can help your teen to respond to conflict and recognise what they can do differently.
For some top tips about how to help your teen resolve conflict, see the ‘Resolving Conflict: Top 5 Tips Poster’ on page 25 of the teen friendships workbook.
Friendship Issues: The Role of School Staff
If you feel like your teen is having significant friendship difficulties, it might be useful for them to talk to school staff. Staff can help them to make friends and support them through this process.
For example, they may put certain children together in a pair with a view to a potential friendship, or suggest that certain students join a particular club.
Many schools also provide individual or group sessions to help your teen learn and practise social skills.
They can also learn how to deal with peer pressure and emotional problems which may be stopping them from joining a group of friends.
Teen Friendships Workbook
We hope this guide has been useful for you and your children’s friendships.
Please download the workbook below for your teen to help them with their friendship problems at secondary school.
Friendship Issues At School: Related Articles
About the Author: Stephanie Soza is currently studying for an MSc in Theory and Practice in Clinical Psychology at the University of Reading. She hopes to become a Clinical Psychologist in the future.
Stephanie has a specialist interest in the mental health and well-being of teenagers, particularly surrounding negative body image and eating disorders.
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