Humans are essentially pack animals. We need the company of others in order to survive.
This need to ‘belong’ is an evolutionary one. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to conform to fit in – if they stepped out of line they may have found themselves single-handedly dealing with woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers!
Research into loneliness and isolation also demonstrates the physical and mental health risks of not connecting with other people. Having friendships is vital for our well-being.
For our young people especially, fallouts with friends and feeling lonely can make certain contexts and situations (such as school) feel unsafe. Worries about not fitting in can be a major contributing factor to social anxiety and school anxiety.
Whilst alone time is great – and some of us really need more alone time than others, without being forced to socialise – it’s important that our teens learn how to mix with others in order to feel supported, and to boost their sense of self-worth.
We do, however, need to be aware that their tribe may not be found in a class of 20-30 kids. This is a tiny, tiny percentage of the whole population, and sometimes your young person just won’t ‘click’ with the kids in their class at school. That doesn’t make them ‘faulty’.
This is where you can help to guide your young person to explore activities and interests outside of school, and encourage them to meet new groups of people with similar interests. A strong sense of self-worth can be ignited when your teen is pursuing their passion and meeting others in this area. Try opening some doors by suggesting that your teen searches for local groups and activities which appeal to them (and be aware of any resistance you have to these – your teen may have different interests from you, but it’s important to help them find their ‘spark’).
Talk about what makes a good friend. How is your teen acting when they feel they’re being a good friend? How would they like their friends to behave towards them? You can work with a list of values, or values cards to help them identify what matters most to them in their relationships with friends (there is a set of values cards being produced alongside my upcoming book, ‘Smooth Sailing with Your Teen’!)
Lots of teens change their behaviour to fit in with their peer group – this is all part of the learning process and finding out who they are. They will often encounter friendship issues as they try to work out who they are, and which direction they want to take in life.
Encourage them to be their authentic selves. (This means not ridiculing them when they appear with green hair or piercings – believe me, they will face enough ridicule from other teens, so they need your support).
It’s important to encourage your teen to be kind to others too and not to pick people out for being ‘different’. It’s all too common for groups of young people to pick on the individual who looks and behaves differently. The more that teens focus on others who are different, the more stressed they can become about fitting in themselves.
Make sure you call them out if they describe other children as ‘weird’, and check your own behaviour too. Do you laugh at others or ridicule others in front of your teens, or in the workplace? A more grown up approach is to accept that not everyone is your cup of tea, but that’s ok. You won’t be everyone’s cup of tea either!
Also, check in with whether this is actually your issue or your young person’s struggle? Often very sociable parents with large friendship groups expect their children to behave in this way too, but it’s often not the case. Many children are comfortable with their own company and just a few friends. If they are happy to quietly read a book on their own, you don’t need to panic and force them to go out with friends. Do be aware of your young person withdrawing from all activities however – if they lose interest in absolutely everything, it may be an indicator of depressive tendencies and it’s always important to seek professional help if you are worried.
How do you support your teen to make new friendships? I’d love to hear some other ideas!