When I share that I have six siblings, people often comment that it must have been awesome to have an endless supply of built-in childhood playmates. And while yes, my siblings and I benefited from having enough people to play kickball at any given moment, because I grew up in a crowded household, I was eager to find friends outside the home. I also experienced Asian racism early on, so when I made friends who didn’t seem scared off by my otherness, I valued those friendships deeply.
The nature of teen friendships
As an adult—and especially amidst the pandemic—my touchpoints with friends have been crucial. Yet as a parent of a teen, I have also found the all-consuming nature of teen friendships exhausting at times. Whenever I find myself internally questioning the hours spent video chatting or on various social requests, I pause before saying anything and think back to my high school years. It was a time when I barely remember being home. I usually went to a friend’s house after school and stayed there as long as possible (guest etiquette escaped me at that time!). Or if a drama club production was underway, I spent every day after school — sometimes well into the evening — in the theatre department.
It occurred to me that it can be easy for parents to lose sight of how crucial friendships are for teens. We don’t typically get to witness those relationships unfold. Teens are often out of the house and when they are at home, they’re connected to their friends via their devices. Think back and compare what you see now to the years of managing playdates and needing to be a present adult in charge. Remember having an up-close view on how little kids were (or were not) getting along? Don’t get me wrong, I am delighted to be past the years of supervising playdates. Still, I do think that lack of face time (or masked time, in this day and age) compromises my memory of the power of kid friendships.
Teen friendships are significant
I recently had a rare window into an IRL (in real life) social moment for my teen. It was soccer Senior Night. During the celebratory speeches, I was so moved by how real the relationships and emotional connections were. I thought to myself, “What a gift that these kids can express their feelings so fully and lovingly.” And I couldn’t help but think that while so many things about teenagers have changed over the years—notably, tech access and use—the power of friendships is one thing that has not changed in the 30+ years since I was hanging out in my high school drama department. And no wonder, given the biological underpinnings, the teen brain’s reward centers are wired to activate around peers and promote those relationships.
With this in mind, I wanted to share three key things to remember about friendships, especially as we support our tweens and teens in their evolving relationships during the pandemic.
Change is normal
During the pandemic, kids’ relationships may have shifted in challenging ways. And the stress of those shifts may feel overwhelming on top of everything else. Talk to your teens about how change is expected. I was made aware of the statistics about the normalcy of change in an AMAZE.org podcast interview on friendships and feelings with school counselor and author, Phyllis Fagell. “Even in normal times, there’s a lot of shifting and churning in friendships,” said Fagell. “Research shows only two-thirds of friendships make it from fall to spring of sixth grade. And only 1% of friendships make it from 7th grade to 12th grade,” Fagell shared.
Don’t force friendships
Along with accepting change, resist the urge to push your teen towards friendships that make sense to you, whether based on common peer interests, your tastes, or because you think it would be fun to foster a relationship with another teen’s parents. Teens are figuring out who they are and seeking ways to be independent. That applies to who they choose to spend time with and how they decide to build their relationships.
You can’t control everything
Along with accepting change and not forcing friendships, it’s important to remember that you can’t control everything. In a recent Edit Your Life podcast episode, I asked educator and author Jessica Lahey what to do—if anything—when you’re not wild about your kid’s friends. Lahey cautioned against trying to insert a wedge between friends. “The minute you try to restrict who your kid will be friends with…that’s the best possible way to push them toward that kid,” Lahey said. Instead, she recommends being honest about your concerns and opening a channel of communication. In the face of one of these types of relationships for one of her kids, Lahey said, “OK, we’re going to have to talk about this a lot. If you’re going to remain friends with this kid, I’m going to need to understand what it is that’s feeding you about this relationship…what it is you’re getting out of this relationship, what’s happening that’s positive, what’s happening that’s negative.”
The importance of teen relationships hasn’t changed. But the complexities have evolved in the face of technology and a world forever marked by the pandemic. The good news is, by being a steady, listening, and calm presence, you can help your teen navigate their relationships in a positive way.