When my tween girl was navigating middle school friendships, she seemed to have a new friend group every week. There always seemed to be a lot of drama over who was getting along with one another. As it turns out, this is a normal phase of development among tweens while they learn to form healthy friendships in middle school.
“At this age kids are figuring out who they are and where they belong,” says Maria Sanders, a clinical social worker and certified parent coach. “Socially speaking, they think, ‘I am not a little kid and I don’t belong with my parents and my siblings so I’ve got to find my new people.”
Here are some ways friend relationships can change and how you can best support these changes.
When Parenting Tweens, Keep in Mind …
Tween friendships can be intense.
Between the ages of 9-11, tweens are usually approaching puberty, and with that comes a rush of preteen hormones. All those hormones can supercharge emotions and make relationships more intense at this time in their lives when they’re learning who their friends are and where they belong.
At this age, “It’s developmentally appropriate for tweens to value their peer group and to push away adults,” says Caroline Maguire, a family coach in Massachusetts and the author of, Why Will No One Play With Me? Typically, their friends become the most important emotional relationship for them as they try to be more independent from their parents and siblings. “The peer group becomes the most important factor in their lives,” Maguire says.
Sanders agrees that as tweens move away from their comfortable family relationships, they begin to try to find this same feeling with their friends. “Developmentally, they are supposed to let go of that safety and comfort from their parents, but they still need it. So they’re finding that in their friendships,” Sanders says.
Your tween is probably wondering, where do I fit in?
As tweens develop, they are trying out different personalities and figuring out who they are and where they fit in among their peers. They may act differently when they are with different friends, and they might also try to spend time with different people.
“The first step is leaving the nest. The second step is figuring out which group they are going to be a part of. And then the third step is figuring out where they fit within that group,” says Sanders.
Social media can negatively influence their mood and mental health.
As tweens try to figure out who they are they might turn to social media to see how other tweens interact with one another. “Being on social media constantly can be a negative experience for teenagers and can affect their mood and cause mental health problems according to the latest research,” says Maguire.
Ways you can be supportive of your tween
Don’t bad mouth your tween’s friends.
If one of their friends is mean to them or to another child, your initial reaction might be to say the person being mean isn’t a good friend. But Sanders suggests you refrain from saying negative comments and from offering your opinion.
“I think the hardest thing is not responding because we want to say, ‘Oh, yeah, she was so evil and I agree you should never speak to her again.’”
The first reason it’s important not to say anything negative is because they might end up being friends again. “Don’t directly criticize your tween’s friends, but allow them to examine their friendships without judgment,” says Maguire. You also don’t want to offer opinions since you want to enable your tween to figure out the situation on their own.
“What we want to do is ask them the right questions, so that they are thinking about these things on their own,” says Sanders.
You might ask them, “What are the pros and cons of this friendship?” or “What do you like or dislike about this friend?”
Just listen to your tween’s answers.
When you ask questions to help your child think about their friendships, listen to their answers. “Sometimes not saying anything can open the door for them to express and share more,” says Sanders.
In addition to listening silently, you can also try reflecting back what you heard your child say. Reflective listening can help your tween figure out how to handle their friendship dilemma and at the same time improve your relationship with them. “Your goal is to build trust and intimacy with your tween, not to lecture them,” says Maguire.
Try not to take sides.
Sometimes you might want to offer an explanation of what their friend might have been thinking or feeling to try to build your tween’s empathy. But that can backfire. Your preteen may feel as if you are “taking their friend’s side.”
If you’re tempted to say something like: “Oh, well, it could have been because of this.”
Sanders recommends you say something like this, instead: “Why do you think that your friend behaved that way?” Or, “Where do you think she’s coming from?”
Be a team player.
At this stage in your child’s life, you may find more success parenting them if you concentrate on working together rather than discipline. “We can help kids set boundaries with electronics, friends and areas of their life by working with them collaboratively,” says Maguire. “Parents are really moving from someone who tells children what to do to someone who collaborates with tweens to help them make their decisions.”
Collaborating with your preteen allows you to model how a healthy relationship works. “We need to be involved as a coach or a shepherd and remember the end goal which is that as they enter the world they have these key problem solving skills and then continue to have a bond with us and feel comfortable coming to their parents to problem solve,” says Maguire.
Here are our most popular articles about puberty:
How to Survive Puberty: Help Teens Get Through With Confidence
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Support Your Tween Socially During Middle School:
What to Expect in Middle School: Strategies for Parents by Lisa Damour
Finding a Tribe: Why is Making Friends in Middle School so Hard?
Middle School Friendships: 15 Ways to Support Your Teen’s Social Life
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