According to Phyliss Fagell, author of Middle School Matters, teens and tweens with strong friendships tend to emerge from middle school happier, healthier, and more likely to succeed. But Fagell also points out that making friends in middle school is a serious challenge because at this age, children transition from having friends based on proximity to having friends based on common interests. In other words, in elementary school, being in the same class or playing on the same playground was enough to sustain a friendship. As kids age, however, their connections shift to individuals who are pursuing the same sports, creative outlets, or common causes.
For many middle schoolers, this shift can pose a challenge, since it requires new strategies for everything from meeting people to striking up a conversation to deepening a relationship. Although ultimately, children must learn these skills themselves, there are a number of steps parents can take to support them on their journey. Here are a few:
- Help middle schoolers figure out what activities and settings they enjoy. Encourage kids to explore areas that are of interest to them. Help them sign up for clubs at school. Help them research community gardens, soup kitchens, or other collaborative spaces. Help them sign up for music or art lessons, or to join a local band or chorus. Give them the space to explore what they love, and to meet people along the way.
- Foster critical thinking about what healthy friendships should and should not look like. In middle school, kids are still figuring out how to interact with one another, and how to support each other emotionally. Encourage kids to ask questions about what they want to get out of their friendships. For example, you might ask, “It sounds like your friend K was really sad. How do you like people to support you when you’re sad?” Use bullying or other negative incidents at school as a jumping off point about identifying toxicity. For example, you might ask, “How would you want to be treated in this scenario?” Or, “If you were in this position, what would you want a friend to do for you?” Or, “If the bully was your friend, what would you say to them?”
- Talk about your own positive relationships. When checking in with kids at the end of the day – in the car, in the kitchen, or at the grocery store – tell them about positive ways that you’ve been supported by your friends. For example, you might say, “I really had a hard time with this project at work. My friend X was so patient in explaining things to me.” Or, “I disagreed with my friend Y at work today. Luckily, they are a good listener, so we talked it out, and now our friendship is stronger than ever.” Or, “I didn’t realize that I had made Z feel hurt today. She told me how she felt so I was able to apologize.” As much as possible, model open, communicative, kind and supportive relationships. This will ensure that your child will hold themselves and their friends to high standards.
- Foster self-acceptance. In a climate of shifting relationships, it is easy for middle schoolers to blame themselves for a lack of immediate social success. To combat this, help children appreciate themselves. This not only involves identifying their strengths and talents, but also the character traits that make them uniquely themselves. Most importantly, remind kids to seek out friends that love them for exactly who they are: if friends expect them to change, it’s probably a good idea to reexamine these relationships.