Adolescence is a time of tremendous change and growth. Preteens and teens begin to rely more on their peers than their families for support and identity, hence the increased need to “fit in.” They begin to shape their own identity through what they wear, who they hang out with, and what they do. And all of this happens as they navigate puberty.
Given everything going on, it’s no surprise this phase is filled with friendship changes too. As parents and caregivers, it’s difficult to see our kids struggle or to know how to best support them. This article shares ways parents can help kids and teens navigate social struggles while helping them develop self-confidence and problem-solving skills in the process.
Lessons from Star Wars
In Star Wars—The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker needs to learn to become a Jedi Knight. He also needs someone to provide guidance and support to use the Force wisely and effectively.
That’s where Yoda comes in. By offering support and allowing Luke to work through challenges, Luke gains confidence, skills, and eventually independence. This storyline provides a model on how to guide kids through friendship problems too.
Controlling the Instinct to Fix
As parents, it’s tough to see our kids struggle. We want to alleviate our kids’ pain and solve problems, so we jump right in and offer quick solutions. But often our efforts only make us feel better. And we miss the opportunity to help our kids navigate their emotions, feel heard, and learn to problem-solve.
Instead of jumping in to fix things, the following steps will help parents connect with their kids, navigate emotions, and learn to work through difficult situations—skills that will support them throughout life.
Steps to Guide Kids Through Friendship Struggles
- Listen hard and empathize.
Ask questions to get a clear understanding of what happened. Get a deeper understanding of their world. Social dynamics are more complex than they first appear. Remember, you are hearing just one perspective of the story.
Ask what emotions they’re feeling. Where do they feel the emotion inside their body (jaw clenched, stomach ache, etc.)? When we help our kids identify and talk about their feelings, we’re helping them develop emotional intelligence. By naming our feelings, we begin to tame them.
After you’ve listened deeply and helped your child identify emotions, empathize. As humans, it’s incredibly healing to feel heard and understood.
- Keep your emotions and reactions in check so you can best help your child.
When kids experience big emotions, it may trigger big emotions in adults. Because of the instinct to protect, a child’s sadness or anger may trigger these or other emotions in caregivers.
However, when parents experience big reactions and jump on their own emotional roller coaster, they miss the opportunity to help their child process his/her situation. When parents stay grounded and calm, they avoid adding additional stress to their child’s struggles.
- Have child lead problem-solving.
Once caregivers understand the situation and their child is more settled, ask if the child has any ideas on possible solutions. You can share your thoughts too, but make sure the child takes the lead and makes the final choice on their path. Often, no action needs to be taken. Your child might feel better after processing their emotion.
Navigating Friendships Post-COVID19
Social distancing canceled activities, and school closures have significantly impacted kids’ friendships over the past year. Some friendships have bloomed, some have stagnated, and others have dropped away. When students head back to school, these changes will come into focus. Social groups will be different and new friendship dynamics will emerge, as they always do. For many kids, this offers an opportunity to start fresh.
As parents navigate changes alongside their kids, it helps to know that there is no way to avoid uncomfortable experiences. Some days will be sunny and others will be cloudy. Making, keeping, and deciding when and how to part with friends is part of a child’s development. It’s sometimes a messy process. If social struggles are ongoing and impacting well-being, be sure to reach out to the school counselor or another professional for additional support.
When parents consistently provide calm, loving support, their kids learn that they are not navigating alone. As they work through struggles, they become more empathic, more socially and self-aware, and learn the ins and outs of friendship. And parents learn right along with them.
About the Author: Jessica Speer’s middle-grade book, BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls’ Guide to Happy Friendships, grew out of her friendship program that strengthens social awareness and helps kids navigate common struggles. She has a master’s degree in social sciences and focuses her research and writing on social-emotional topics for kids and families. To learn more, visit, www.JessicaSpeer.com.