Around middle school, your adolescent’s social life both in and out of school will probably get more complicated. Inevitably, middle school friendships change. And your middle schooler may come home complaining about frenemies, mean girls (and boys), or even bullies.
Hardest of all for many parents is that your adolescent may not want your help navigating this brave new world, at all. So we asked a round-up of experts for their top tips on how to support our adolescent’s changing social worlds.
15 Ways to Support Social Growth:
1. Accept that social issues exist.
For teens, every aspect of their identity is tied to their social life. Even activities that seem unrelated to friends, like sports or academics, affect their social standing. As an adult, you may not worry much about what your peers think of you, but your adolescent worries about this a lot.
2. Understand that everything feels bigger to teens.
Teens have heightened emotional responses. You may feel protective and inclined to react. Instead, support your teens by helping them work out their own problems and teaching them to take challenges in stride.
3. Appreciate your teen’s social savvy.
Teens likely understand their social world better than you. For example, you may encourage your teen to be friends with a particular kid, but your teen might know that that kid is engaging in activities that make your adolescent uncomfortable (and won’t please you). Don’t force friendships that your adolescent is not interested in pursuing.
4. Acknowledge your own social ambitions.
If your teen likes his friends and they are a positive peer group, you should not be disappointed if they are not the group you would choose. Your teen does not need to feel your frustration because they didn’t make the “in” group.
5. Define the elements of a good friendship.
Help your teen understand that friendship includes kindness. When teens worry about popularity, kindness can go out the window. Middle school friendships can be one-sided, where one teen tries hard to please a friend and the more popular friend takes advantage of that.
6. Encourage healthy middle school friendships.
Often, teens put themselves on the periphery of the popular kids, hoping to get included, but instead end up being treated poorly. Encourage your teen to avoid these situations and seek out peers who want to be friends.
7. Sympathize when your teen says, “I want to be popular.”
First, offer sympathy, but next, remind them about the importance of genuine friends versus being popular.
8. Empathize when your teen feels mistreated.
First offer empathy, but next offer coping tools, like ignoring the insult or addressing it with a short comment like, “Leave it alone.”
9. Intervene with bullying.
Bullying that negatively impacts your teen is different than the growing pains of fitting in. You should take bullying seriously and address it.
10. Identify dangerous situations that require parental intervention.
If your teen is hanging with a tough crowd, you can say, “It’s not productive and you are placing yourself in an unsafe situation. Why are you making those choices?” You should also try to understand why your teen is making poor choices.
11. Don’t impose arbitrary limits that may hurt your teen socially.
Don’t set your teen up for teasing because you made an arbitrary rule. For example, no shaving until 10th grade. Look at your limits and talk to other parents to understand age-appropriate norms.
12. Understand that technology is an important way for teens to socialize.
Today’s teenagers “hang out” using technology in much the same way you may have congregated at the mall or local skating rink. Still, you can (and should) have house rules, like no phone at the dinner table or in the bedroom at night. But recognize that if you don’t allow certain technology at all, you will impact your teen’s ability to participate in today’s world
13. Recognize the downside of popularity.
Popularity, particularly in middle school, is a double-edged sword. Kids who are popular in middle school also tend to be more likely to engage in risky behavior, like substance abuse and skipping school.
14. Be a good listener.
When your adolescent opens up about problems with peers, it can be helpful to listen more than you talk. Teenagers often just want to dump. They don’t always want your advice, just like your partner may only want to dump about that annoying co-worker (versus getting your advice on how to handle that co-worker). If you allow your adolescent to vent for 10-15 minutes, you may find he quickly moves on from whatever was bothering him.
15. Remember, this too shall pass.
Your teenager won’t always be so caught up in social drama. Middle school life eventually ends. By around 10th grade, most teenagers have found their group and are comfortable with where they fit in the social order.