Nurturing Preteen Friendships
"Did you make any new friends?
It's a question that mothers everywhere ask of their brand-new middle-school child after those first days of school. It's an anxious question. We want our children to develop solid relationships in their adolescence, but we fear the unknown.
During the elementary school years, we knew our children's friends, who were often neighborhood kids. In elementary school, the children were too young to schedule play dates without an adult involved. We were active in their school and in all aspects of their lives.
Keep the Old?
When kids move to middle school, they often join with hundreds of children from other elementary schools, and lifetime friends are separated into different classes.
Eleanor Chase* of Bryn Mawr, Pa., says that her daughter had to make a whole new group of friends when she entered middle school. "My daughter's friends from elementary school ended up in different classes," Chase says. "She still has relationships with the kids from her elementary school – there was no falling out – but they aren't as strong as they were before."
When Mary Burns'* children left their Chateauguay, Quebec, Canada, neighborhood elementary school, she noticed that they gradually moved away from their old friendships. "My oldest son didn't keep any of his old friendships," Burns says. "At first I'd encourage him to call some, but he kept refusing. He said that he had nothing in common with them and didn't want to be friends with them. My daughter tried to remain friends with her old elementary school buddies. Even though she was involved in activities with some of them, once they moved into different schools, she felt like an outsider. My youngest son rues losing his neighborhood friends, but he is reluctant to call them."
Make New Friends
In middle school, new friendships are made with children who are scattered throughout the community. After-school or evening events focus on social time between adolescents, not families. As the kids get older and more comfortable in their new school and social surroundings, there will be friendships made that never get mentioned at home.
"The family takes a backseat to friends, which is a process that used to occur as a normal development during the teenage years, when identity was forming and rebellion against the parents was par for the course," says April Masini, author of the "Ask April" advice column. "But now, it all happens much sooner ... including falling in with the 'wrong crowd.' And today, that doesn't mean that those kids are egging their teacher's home. It means drinking, drugs and yes ... sex."
While not every preteen is drinking, using drugs or having sex – or doing any multitude of bad things – those behaviors are becoming more common among middle-school students. Parents need to be more aware and more prepared for the behaviors their adolescents will be exposed to. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when parents are less aware of their child's friendships and acquaintances.
"I really don't know any of my children's friends," Burns says. "They were all reluctant [at the middle-school age] to invite friends from school. I think a large part is that they feel that we may not be living up to their friends' standards and a shyness to do so."
What Can You Do?
How can parents make sure their children are making good friends? Erika Karres, author of the book Mean Chicks, Cliques, and Dirty Tricks: A Real Girl's Guide to Getting Through the Day With Smarts and Style (Adams Media Corporation, 2004) suggests the following hints:
- Remind your adolescent that friendship is a talent. "Some kids are good at sports, some are good at music and some are good at friendship," Karres says. Some kids need to work harder than others to be a good friend.
- Teach your tween how to observe their peers. "You can tell by watching how another child acts, how their grades are, what they are involved in and so on, whether or not that child would make a good potential friend."
- Be a friendship finder, not a friendship receiver. "Be proactive," Karres says. "If you see a group of kids you want to know, go to them. Don't wait for them to come to you."
- Work on overcoming shyness. Most people are shy on some level, including people who seem to have a lot of friends.
- Encourage your tween to find friendship mentors. "Parents can show kids how to make friends and be friends by being an example," says Karres. Introduce your friends to your children. Invite your friends to your house frequently. Make an effort to know other parents. Your preteens will see that friendships are encouraged and welcome in your home, and they'll feel comfortable inviting their friends over.
Karres, who is currently working on a book about preteen friendships, says that parents can – and should – keep up with their adolescent's new friendships. She encourages parents to continue volunteering in schools when possible, like they did in elementary school. Chaperone events where your child will be with his or her new friends, and when the inevitable sleepover request comes, suggest that it be held at your house whenever you aren't well familiar with the friend.
Even when parents take precautions to do all they can to meet their preteen's new friends, and feel comfortable that they've coached their child well in the art of friendship making, there are times when a new friendship makes the parents feel unsettled.
"Go with your mother's instinct," Karres says. "There is a reason you feel uncomfortable around a child." Even so, she suggests giving the child a chance, because your influence could actually be a good thing for the child in question.
Burns' mother's instinct kicked in with one of her daughter's friends. "I never liked her," Burns says. "There was something about her I couldn't trust. However, she was my daughter's friend, so I did welcome her into our home and made an effort to like her."
Eventually, the friend proved Burns' instincts to be correct. Knowing the friend allowed Burns to provide support to her daughter when the friendship ended. She had a good understanding of the situation, and it gave Burns the chance to steer her daughter in the direction of better friendships.
Friendship is vital to the emotional health of a preteen. "Middle school can make or break a youngster," says Karres. "They need good friends."* Names have been changed to protect privacy.