Peer presence: teaching teens how to make new friends

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Starting high school is hard enough. Making new friends makes it even harder.

For parents helping their teens navigate this often highly emotional transition it can be tricky. While for some kids the social side of high school might be easy, for others it can be more difficult.

Clinical Psychologist and author of Parenting Made Simple Dr Sarah Hughes said while some teens were naturally outgoing, highly sociable, and find their feet easily when they start high school, others have a harder time. 

"Some because they're more reserved and slower to warm up to new people and new situations, and others because their level of self-consciousness and unease in social situations makes reaching out and making new friends particularly challenging," Dr Hughes said.

"If a teen has come from a smaller primary school, the jump from a smaller, close-knit school community to a bigger school and a larger year group can be overwhelming as well, and that can make finding friends difficult too."

One of the best things a parent can do to help their teens was to encourage extracurricular activities. 

"It's a great way for teens to meet other like-minded teens with similar interests, and the regular training/practices offer an opportunity for conversation and connection that can be hard to come by at recess and lunch time," she said.

"In the same way that drinks after work can turn colleagues into friends, time with friends after school or at the weekends can strengthen and solidify new friendships at school as well."

But remember, it's probably best you encourage your child to do the organising, not you.

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"There'll still be a need for parent contact to cover off logistics but contacting parents on your child's behalf might end up making things worse for them socially rather than better," she said.

"If helping your child to settle in socially is your goal, only be as involved as you actually need to be."

And it's also important to let your teens know that when making new friends it's important to give everyone a chance.

"Be open and friendly, and don't make assumptions," she said.

"It's easy to assume that people are unapproachable or unfriendly – especially in high school – and sometimes that's the case, but it's generally the exception rather than the rule. 

"Acting on assumptions can cut you off from people who might have been great friends – so being open and friendly is your best bet, even when it's scary."

Registered psychologist Rachel Tomlinson said the teen years were the time for kids to find their place away from the family unit.

"They start spreading their wings and wanting more independence, and are figuring out who they are, which is often reflected in who they align themselves with socially," Ms Tomlinson said.

"Many teens need to try on many different roles before they find a place they feel comfortable in. This can mean lots of swapping and moving through social circles.

"There is also a bit of 'jostling' that can occur as our teens figure out where they are in the social pecking order and there is an increased priority in being seen as popular or being aligned with particular groups."

While teens want to make their own decisions, parents can still play a role in providing support to help them navigate the world of friendships.

"Help your child identify their interests and passions and encourage them to find like-minded people," she said.

"This is going to create some sense of connection and points of discussion or activities that they can engage in together."

Speak to your teens about what respectful friendships look like and help them develop their own self-esteem. Also have open conversations about what to be wary of including gossiping, manipulation, and exclusionary behaviour. And remind them of the importance of being a loyal, compassionate and honest friend.

"It's also important to help them see their value outside of friendships groups, you can encourage this by building their self-esteem," she said.

Here are her top four tips for making friends:

1.   Be a good listener and show interest in what other people say.

2.    Avoid gossip and be respectful in the way you talk about others.

3.     Find people who you have commonalities with - people you have frequent contact with, share classes with or other common interests.

4.     Show up. Make an effort, be present and care for your friends.