Your child hasn’t yet managed to find a group they feel truly comfortable with. Maybe they are on the edge of a friendship group, or flitting between a few. Or perhaps they do not have a longed-for close friend.
Your child longs to find that someone or group of someones they can be their true relaxed selves with.
How can you support your teenager with friendship issues when it’s easy to feel powerless? As a child psychologist I have laid down my suggestions below and I hope you find them practical.
Teenage Friendship Issues Are Common
My daughter was lucky enough to have found a healthy, supportive and stable friendship group from about year 8 of secondary school, but she was very lucky in that she was placed in a class with one of her best friends since birth. So she never really faced teenage friendship problems and now, at nearly 18, she is very socially at ease.
When my son started secondary school he knew virtually nobody in the school, but now seems to have begun to develop some really supportive friendships.
One thing I have observed with my children and in my clinical work is that friendships in secondary school take time to form, especially with teenage girls, and that often finding your closest friends can be down to luck.
Teenage Friendship Issues: How Can I Support My Child?
1. Open a Discussion About Friendship Issues
As you may know if you read my articles regularly, the first step in helping a child with something is always to understand what is contributing to the problem.
This is what psychologists call “formulation”.
We act like detectives, uncovering clues.
Then we put the clues together, make sense of them, and develop a plan.
So, chat with your child. Why do they think a happy and settled friendship or friendship group has been elusive to them so far?
Is your child’s view accurate, or could it be a little skewed?
For example, some teenagers lack insight and may assume that if they haven’t got friends, there is something wrong with them. Or, they may assume that there is something wrong with the people around them.
2. Acknowledge Friendship Anxiety
Most teens want friends. Very few teenagers are truly content with only their own company or that of their family.
Even if it’s not obvious, your teenager may be experiencing friendship anxiety – deep-rooted fears about their ability to be a friend and find friends, such as:
“I’ll never make friends.”
“There’s something wrong with me.”
“There’s something about me that puts people off.”
“I’m not skilled at friendships.”
3. Normalise Friendship Problems
Teen friendships are complex. It is not your fault or your child’s fault that they are having problems.
For example, there may be some tricky friendship dynamics going on at your child’s school which are causing friendship problems for your child.
Teenage Friendship Issues: Problems and Solutions
Below, I have listed some possible reasons why your child may and not have found solid friendships yet.
I have then suggested practical steps you can take towards a solution.
1: Friendship Issues Caused By a Difference in Levels of Maturity
In my clinic, Everlief, I hear two very common phrases from parents (or variations on these phrases):
“My child wants to talk about sophisticated subjects like philosophy, but others her age are not interested”.
“My child is still interested in Lego and Roblox, but his peer group have moved on to Fortnite”.
These phrases suggest there may be a gap in maturity between a child and some of their peers.
In some cases, children might identify more strongly with older children or young adults. In other cases they may gravitate towards younger children.
There is nothing wrong with this.
The only problem is that at high school, it may mean that there are not many children in the same year group who would be a good match.
Teens may try to respond to peer pressure by doing things they are not ready for or gravitating towards types of friends who make them feel stressed – potentially unhealthy friendships or even toxic friendships.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
How to Help Your Teenager With Friendship Problems if There is a Maturity Gap
1. Give them opportunities for contact with different ages
Don’t worry that your child doesn’t have many close friendships of the same age or in the same school year.
Look out for opportunities for connecting with peers of the age that they feel most comfortable with.
For instance, lunchtime or after school clubs with other year groups, face to face extra curricular activities such as scouts/explorers, sports clubs, or online opportunities.
2. Don’t try to change who they are
Don’t try to mould your child into something they are not.
Development-wise, where they are is where they need to be.
If you try to force them into friendships of their age, perhaps by pushing an interest in a particular area, your child will just end up spending time with people they don’t feel an affinity with rather than a true friendship.
Your child’s integrity of identity will be compromised.
2: Friendship Issues Caused by Struggles With Essential Social Skills
Sometimes young people have a skills gap.
By secondary school age there are certain skills that most children will have mastered, which will help them develop sound friendships.
These include for example:
- Showing an interest in others e.g. asking questions about them.
- Taking part in a two way conversation in social interactions e.g. listening to somebody’s response and building on it.
- Taking turns.
If your child lacks one or more fundamental skills for developing teenage friendships, this is not a cause for panic.
The good news is these tend to develop in time.
How to Help Your Teenager With Friendship Issues Caused By a Skills Gap
1. Work on one area at a time
Friendship skills can be learned.
The brain is very flexible, especially at this age. Some organisations, including my clinic Everlief, offer friendship skills support, but you can also work on these at home.
Don’t work on more than one skill at a time and don’t spend so much time “coaching” that you take the fun out of it.
You risk overwhelming your child and denting their self confidence if you try to do this. Take a look at my blog article on this topic to guide you further.
2. Be patient and Consistent
Yes, friendship skills can be learned.
However, it takes time.
Trust the process, and trust that if your child has positive character traits (of course they do!) then one day they will become a very good long-term friend to someone.
Try to reassure your child of this and remind them of their positive traits.
3: Friendship Problems Caused By Choosing the Wrong Friends
Many young people are not clear what they are looking for in a friendship. Often, they just follow the crowd, or try to make friends with someone they sit next to.
This is one of the most common reasons why teenagers feel they haven’t found a solid friendship group.
Teenagers are still trying to figure out what’s important to them, so they are likely to be unclear what is important to them in a friendship.
They can end up flitting between different friendship circles as their sense of identity changes. They may end up in a certain group which isn’t right for them, because they have joined the group for the wrong reasons.
For example, because they are not clear what’s important to them, they might join a peer group because it seems “cool”. After a time they realise that they do not feel comfortable or relaxed in this group, and cannot be themselves, which can take its toll on self esteem.
How to Help Your Teenager if They Have Chosen the Wrong Friends
1. Have a discussion about what to look for in a friend.
Even though what’s important to your teenager may change over the next few years, you can increase their conscious awareness of what’s important to them right now.
For example, this is fictional teenager Jordan’s list of what is important in a friendship:
- When I have a problem, they listen and support me.
- They can keep a secret.
- Good friends are loyal; they never try to embarrass or humiliate me for a laugh.
- We don’t struggle for conversation. There are not awkward silences.
- We laugh a lot. Humour is really important to them.
Once Jordan has his list, he can go through his current friendships and see how well they match up. This will help him decide if he is in the right place and should work on strengthening those friendships further, or if he should pivot and explore new friendships. He could think about any potential friends on the horizon who seem like a good fit.
2. Make it Concrete
As I have explained above, bringing your values and beliefs into conscious awareness is really important as it helps you act on them.
Transforming them from vague thoughts into a concrete written list is a powerful step.
If you want to go even further, make it into a picture or diagram.
The brain responds better to pictures than words.
3. Help your child identify their values
Values are simply what is important to your child.
They are different to morals.
Values are not set for a lifetime. They can change, especially in the teenage years.
However, helping your child identify their values is one of the most helpful things you can do, to steer your child towards successful friendships and positive relationships.
When children come to Everlief for therapy, I often use values cards to help them identify what is important to them.
These are a set of 50 or so cards containing words (with accompanying pictures) such as:
- Helping others;
- Standing out in a crowd.
We go through the cards together, and we narrow them down until the child is left with three cards representing their highest values.
Let’s imagine that one of Jordan’s top three values is creativity.
Once he becomes consciously aware of this, he realises that he is looking for friends who share that creativity. This leads him to pluck up the courage to join the after-school songwriters’ club, and start to make connections with other creative types.
Ideally, your child’s friends will share some of their values.
4. Their identity is evolving, so it’s okay not to have found long term friendships yet
As I have already said, your child sense of who they are and what’s important to them will evolve during the teenage years.
This means it’s absolutely okay not to have found long term friendships yet.
It may not feel like a nice place to be for your teen, but help them have faith that they will find those friendships in time.
4: Friendship Issues When Your Child Has “Niche” or Uncommon Interests
When children have unusual interests and passions they may face a dilemma. Should I pretend to have mainstream interests to fit in? Or should I “be myself” and risk being lonely or being called weird?
Seb (a fictional 16 year-old) felt lonely at school. His passion had been music from a young age. He loved to sing.
Seb went to an all-boys’ school which had a top reputation for sport. He had never really found a friend who shared his passion or had similar interests.
Though there were other boys at his school who didn’t enjoy sport, none of them were a good personality match for Seb.
He was looking for someone with whom to have deep and meaningful conversations about classical music.
When Seb transferred to a different school and studied A level music, suddenly the pool of potential friends opened up, and Seb quickly found himself at the centre of a close and supportive group of friends.
What To Do If Your Child Has Friendship Issues and They Can’t Find Anyone With Shared Interests
1. Widen the Net (But Don’t Be Too Pushy)
Encourage your child to consider joining new clubs or groups outside their comfort zone, where their “ideal friend” may spend time.
Consider both face to face and online options.
2. Have Faith That Friendships Will Come Along
Reassure your child that it is not about them.
If their interests are not shared with those around them, they haven’t been lucky enough to find their crew yet. But this is unrelated to their likeability or what they can offer as a friend.
Even if your child is going through tough times in terms of finding true positive friendships, things almost always level out as the teen years pass and adulthood begins.
This BBC Bitesize Article gives some further tips and the video is great for younger teens or tweens to watch.
5: Social Anxiety Causing Friendship Issues
Do you find that your child:
- Doubts their ability in social situations?
- Over-analyses social issues from the past?
- Over-thinks what might go wrong in social relationships?
Social anxiety (which can be closely related to friendship anxiety) can be caused by a complex combination of factors.
For example, if your child struggles with social skills like reading social cues, they are more likely to be anxious as they can’t easily predict what a person might say or do next.
The trouble with social anxiety is that it often causes young people to avoid social connections. This then makes the anxiety worse, because they don’t have the opportunity for positive social development.
What To Do If Your Teenager’s Social Anxiety is Causing Friendship Issues
1. Follow the Steps in This Article
If you think your child is socially anxious, use this article to work out the key contributing factors.
2. Avoid Avoidance
Gently try to prevent your child from avoiding social situations.
If you have social anxiety, avoiding social situations may feel like a quick fix. However, avoidance reinforces your fears over time.
By facing social settings, you give yourself the opportunity to challenge and change negative thought patterns.
Your teenager should take baby steps at their own pace.
This exposure helps build confidence and coping skills for better long-term wellbeing.
3. Support Online Interactions
Recognise the potential importance of gaming and social media to strengthen bonds with your child’s friends, or make new friends, without the need for face to face contact.
The world is changing and these methods are becoming a core aspect of friendships in teens and pre-teens.
4. Consider Seeking Therapeutic Support
If your teenager’s friendships are being significantly impacted by social anxiety, consider seeking therapy for them, such as CBT. The therapist would explore not only your teenager’s friendship issues with them, but also address their underlying social anxiety.
In the first instance you can speak to your family doctor about a referral.
There are several different types of child therapist who can help including clinical psychologists and CBT therapists.
Teenage Friendship Issues: Frequently Asked Questions
My teenage son keeps losing friends. What can I do?
Take a step back. Start to think like a detective. Look for clues as to why this might be happening. Speak to your son and gauge his thoughts. Once you have some clues, take each “problem” one at a time, and make a plan.
For example, let’s say that your child loses friends because they always take jokes too far and don’t know when to stop. Your plan of action might look a bit like this:
- Make sure your teenager is aware that you think this is the problem.
- Praise your teen when he manages to stop a joke before it goes too far.
- Point out when your teen has not managed to stop before going to far, to increase his awareness.
- Help your teenager create a plan of action for when he realises in hindsight he has upset or offended someone. For example, apologising and seeking to make amends.
My 13 year old daughter has no friends and I feel so sad for her.
It’s very hard but try to take your emotions out of the equation. You will be in a better position to help her if you are emotionally well regulated. Next, chat with your daughter about all her strengths and her difficulties. You could make a list. Why does she think she doesn’t have any friends?
Now you have some information you can start to make an action plan. What is one tiny step your daughter could make that might help her gain a friend? This might be finding out about lunch time clubs at school, or following someone she likes on social media.
Keep it positive and focus on just one step at a time.
How can I help my teenage daughter with friendship problems when she is easily influenced and keeps making bad friendship decisions?
It’s important to accept that you may have limited influence, and she may have to make some mistakes before she begins to make better decisions. Keep chatting to your daughter in a light and informal way about friendships. Try to not appear judgmental as you may lose her trust this way.
Try to encourage your daughter to think about her values. If she is clear on values then she can be guided by them in her friendship decisions. For example, if honesty is important to her then she should look for friends who are honest.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Are you the parent of a 6-16 year-old? Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.