Making friends is difficult for kids, no matter their age. Add in the emotional and physical changes and stress of puberty, and attempting to make friends may become even more of a challenge for some. You may wonder how you can help if your child has no friends or is having difficulty making friends.
Understanding the Basics of Puberty
For both boys and girls, puberty begins between 8 and 15 years of age. The body undergoes significant physical, hormonal and emotional changes. Physical changes include growth spurts (some children may grow up to four inches in one year), rapid weight gain for some, acne, hair growth and body odor. Such physical changes make many kids uncomfortable with their bodies, and they become self-conscious.
Couple the physical changes with the hormonal changes that occur in both boys and girls, as boys have increases in testosterone and girls have increases in estrogen, and life becomes a very different place for children and parents. The emotional changes and feelings kids develop are a result of the physical and hormonal changes and are not visible. Emotional changes include, but are not limited to, self-conscious behavior and concerns over physical appearance as well as issues with self-esteem. As kids develop from a child’s body into an adult’s body, emotional changes may be forgotten about or not taken as seriously since they are not as easily observed. It is important to ask your children about their emotions and feelings as well as their physical needs.
The Role of Friendships During Puberty
Kids and adults alike need friends in their lives. However, the role friends play differs in different time periods of life. For adolescents, the role of friends includes learning new roles as they are beginning to find their own identities. What is often desired in the first true friendships of the teenage years includes similarity and loyalty. Kids want to be around friends with similar interests and attitudes. Your son or daughter will be attracted to individuals with similar backgrounds, who dress similarly, listen to the same music or have the same interest in gaming or sports or other activities. Kids need to bond with friends with whom they have things in common.
In addition, they need to feel that they can trust their friends. Loyalty is important. Your daughter wants someone who will keep her confidences and needs a peer her own age with whom to have conversations and discussions, which is a normal part of growing into adulthood. Also, with trust comes a mutual respect for one another. Children need to give and receive respect from their friends in order to have positive friendship experiences in the teenage years.
Teenage friendships are also important in providing a source of support and comfort with like-minded peers. Having friends provides your kids with a group of people — even if two to three people — with whom they can have a sense of security and comfort in sharing experiences and talking about what is going on in their lives. Children may also want a peer their own age with whom to discuss body changes and ask questions about whether what they are experiencing is the same for their friends. Such friendships are the foundation for future friendships and important for learning to be a good friend.
The Role of Parents During Puberty
Support, encourage and teach your children about friendships and how to be a good friend. Remove the focus from the physical aspect of puberty. Encourage your kids to see their inner selves rather than just what’s on the outside. Reflect on the strengths of your children, and encourage them to see their positive sides and attributes. Be aware this is the time for development of their individual social identity. They are often trying to figure out who they are and may need space to do so. Offer them the space needed, yet provide support and safe areas for open communication in the home.
Be aware that your kids will shift from time with you to time with their friends, and they may have a change in activities and interests. Be cognizant of what can result in self-harm, such as self-mutilation, and of self-destructive or dangerous behaviors, such as cutting, vaping, partaking of alcohol or drugs or being manipulated into unhealthy trends or illegal activities. If your children do not exhibit such behaviors, allow them self-exploration and take this as a positive sign they are growing into adulthood.
You need to model friendships and friendship behavior. Do you have friends, and, if so, what is the nature of the friendship? How do you treat your friends, and how do they treat you? Your children observe your behavior more than you realize. Parents who spend time with their own friends are more likely to have children with healthy friendships of their own. It is important for your kids to see you spending time with your friends and showing them that friendship is a two-way activity. Model positive friendships by listening to and engaging with your friends, and then telling your kids about your friendships.
If your children are having difficulty making friends, encourage them to start by joining a group or club, activity, sporting team or other social event. Have them mix and join events with children of similar interests. Encouraging kids to spend time with others outside of school can increase their likelihood of developing friendships. Spending time with extended family causes them to have activities of their own. Make certain they talk to you if they’re having issues with friends or making friends. Also make your home comfortable for your children to have friends over. Be aware, as your kids become teens, that when they spend less time with you and more time with others, it’s a sign of developing healthy peer relationships.
Validate your children’s feelings, and encourage them to discuss their issues and concerns. Ask questions to understand what they mean if they say they have no friends. Your role as a parent is to be there for the long term. You were there from the beginning and set the values your children will carry with them into the teenage years and into adulthood. Your values and the way you demonstrate friendship will influence how your kids develop and maintain friendships. Take the time to talk to your children, develop your own friendships, model positive friendship behaviors, and talk with them about positive long-lasting friendships.
Stephanie C. Evans, PhD, APRN, CPNP-PC, is an Assistant Professor of Nursing at Texas Christian University, Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences. She is a PNP with two decades of experience in pediatrics and working with children.