I bet we can all remember the joys, pitfalls and stress of negotiating tween and teen friendships. Kids at this age are beginning to assert their independence by turning increasingly towards peers for support and guidance (consequently, they often try to rely less on family). You may start to notice insecurities where none or few were before. The likes and dislikes of these new ‘peer families’ can be a moving target. For this reason, taking the time to look at values, goals and what they are and are not OK with is very important.
I begin the friendship session with the kids, by asking them to imagine creating the ideal friend; what qualities would that friend have? Sometimes the lists are long, and sometimes they are quite short, but a few of the constants are as follows:
Sense of humour
Kind and supportive
Has your back
Stuff in common
Once we decide on the most important qualities as a group, I ask them to think in their heads, or record in their journals, how many people in their lives consistently meet their own criteria. This can get uncomfortable. Our ideals often do not match our realities and it is no different for the kids.
For the purposes of the following exercise, I focus particular attention on ‘trustworthiness’. I have them draw a big full page pyramid in their journals and have them draw a line slightly below the tip, creating a very small triangle at the top. This section represents the person/people in their lives who always have their backs. Even if one of those people had the juiciest bit of gossip that might give them a social advantage if they shared it, they would never do that. The next section down is usually a larger group–good friends but there is a risk of social betrays if the circumstances tempt it. We continue to work our way down the pyramid, each section involving less trust (hang out at school friends, classmates, people you see regularly…) until we get to the bottom. This is not for ‘enemies’, this is for strangers.
People generally have much less trust for those they don’t know. There are, of course, exceptions; we assume a police officer, religious leader, social worker, teacher etc is reasonably trustworthy in order to earn their position. Mind you, change the setting and lose the uniform, and it is not possible to tell at a glance. This leads to a rather big and debate-worthy question:
What do we owe a stranger?
Are we obligated to be polite?
If an adult speaks to us, must we answer?
What role does context play?
It may seem obvious to an adult, but for some kids, this is a reframing that can really throw them off. I have noticed over the years that I have done this exercise, that girls are more likely to feel obligated to be nice, regardless of the situation. Examples of being polite to strangers in appropriate circumstances may be:
Holding a door for someone in a public place.
Saying hello to a cashier at the store counter
Greeting anyone in a public space
I have also found it helpful to zero in on the following scenario:
You are walking home alone, and no one else is around. A stranger comes up to you and asks for help finding her/his lost dog, or asks for directions. What do you do?
Believe it or not, there is usually a fair amount of debate on this point. What I reinforce with them is that no adult has any business ever asking an isolated child for help. Ever. Adults know this. It is OK and smart to ignore, walk away, yell, and even run if the voice inside of you tells you to. That voice is the part of us that is picking up on many non-verbal cues so quickly that we can’t consciously verbalize them. The adult knows better and it is OK if they think we are rude or they become embarrassed. They can deal with it. They know better.
I also give the kids a scenario where they are at a sleepover with a mixture of people in their top 2 pyramid tiers; people with the highest level of trust and those where the little inner voice knows they need to watch what they share. At the sleepover, they begin to play ‘Truth or Dare’. They know that while they like everybody there, they don’t fully trust everyone with deeply personal information.
Key question: How can we protect our boundaries and not share anything that makes us feel vulnerable, while not risking our social status within the group?
Then we brainstorm a list of suggestions. Here is a typical list:
Strategic bathroom/water/food break
Fake a moment of not feeling well and excuse ourselves
Say something that isn’t really that personal
Make a joke out of it
Say pass in an assertive voice
Taking the time to prepare for these ‘mushy boundary’ situations allows the kids to think clearly before they are in the middle of it, and too stressed to make their best choices.
What Can You Do?
If your child is struggling with friendship dynamics, ask them which tier in their pyramid ___ friend is. This may help in deciding how much loyalty/sharing is reasonable.
Discuss strategies for dealing with mixed tier hang out groups in any situations that are coming up
Talk about what is owed to strangers in various different scenarios