For teenagers, a solid group of friends can enrich life and make the ups and downs of adolescence a fun, shared experience. Friends can help teens manage school, romance, family troubles, sports, and everything else that goes along with being a teen.
But not all teens make friends easily, and sometimes life events interrupt friendships and force teens to start all over.
Perhaps that’s the case with your adolescent child.
Maybe they’re shy. Or your family moved to a new community.
Whatever the reason, you want to help your teen make friends – and you can.
It’s important to remember, though, that although you can try your best, you can only do so much. Your efforts will always have a limited effect. The bulk of the task of making friends lies with your child. Which is good, too. You want to teach your child to be independent and solve their own problems while you provide support from the sidelines.
Below, we offer strategies to help provide this behind-the-scenes support.
Parents of Teens: Six Tips to Help Them Make Friends
1. Encourage extracurricular activities.
Figure out what kind of after-school clubs or extracurricular activities your child wants to participate in. Whether it’s band, theater, art, robotics, or sports, find one that your teen likes and sign them up. After-school activities are a great way for teens to find something they connect to and enjoy. They provide a great opportunity for your teen to meet and spend time with like-minded peers – and possibly make friends. It’s often easier to make friends with someone when you share a common interest.
2. Allow them to attend get-togethers.
Adolescence is a far cry from the early stages of childhood. Back then, all you had to do was call up an adult friend and arrange a playdate with your two kids. During adolescence, though, you’re not the one who instigates these things. Your teen has to make it happen. But when they do get invited, encourage them to go – unless, of course, you know that the get-together will involve drugs, alcohol, or illegal/risky activity. In that case, absolutely do not allow your teen to spend time with these peers. But in all other cases, parties and similar after-school hangouts can help your teen acquaint themselves with new friends in a relaxed, social setting. And of course, during this new and unprecedented time, we must add the COVID-19 disclaimer: any event or get together you allow your teen to attend must be safe, and all participants must follow all public health guidelines and regulations active in your area. If it’s not COVID-compliant, do not let them go.
3. Host fun (COVID-safe) get-togethers.
If your adolescent does not receive any social invites, then make the first move. They can host an event. Or they can make it casual: invite a couple friends to a movie – a COVID-safe drive-in. Or order some pizza on a Saturday night, and invite friends over for a socially distant pizza party. However, once the friends do come, try to stay behind the scenes as much as possible. Teens probably don’t want to hang out with you – they’re there for your teen. Supervision is important, but there’s a fine line between keeping an eye on the group and intruding into their circle. You need to maintain a balance between supervising and ensuring your teen learns to make and maintain friends independently.
4. Consider sleepaway camp.
f your teen struggles with shyness or social anxiety at school and among their classmates, they might flourish in the relaxed, varied camp setting where they’ll be with a bunch of other teens – many from different places in the country or the world. Without the pressure of knowing these teens at home or school – and with none of the social baggage they picked up along the way at home – your teen may thrive and make more friends easily.
5. Consider social skills training.
If you’ve tried all these tips without success, your teen might benefit from improving their communication skills. One way to teach your child these skills is social skills training. Social skills training can help them learn to identify and enter open conversations, how to engage in dialogue effectively (both verbally and nonverbally), and how to self-disclose smartly. Their school counselor may provide this resource at school, or you may need to look elsewhere. With effective communication skills, your teen will increase their chances of making social connections.
6. Evaluate them for mental health issues.
Sometimes, lack of friends can be rooted in a mental health issue. For example, if your teen has social anxiety, they could be petrified of even saying hi to a friend, let alone going to a get-together. If your teen has a conduct issue, their irritable behavior may be actively pushing people away instead of drawing them in. Adolescents with a cognitive issue or learning disability may also sometimes struggle with social awkwardness. To figure out whether your teen could have a mental health condition, bring them in for a free evaluation at an adolescent mental health program. Depending on the results of the assessment, your teen may need one-on-one outpatient therapy, an intensive outpatient program (IOP), a partial hospitalization program (PHP), or even a residential treatment center (RTC) if symptoms are highly acute.
Remember: your teen needs to feel ownership over their friend-making process. You can help, but you cannot make friends for them. Your job is to create the conditions or circumstances where they can make genuine connections with peers. Helicoptering and micromanaging can be counterproductive, particularly if you host a (COVID-safe) event at your home.
It’s Their Social Life – Not Yours
Sometimes, parents want to enlist teachers to help their teens make friends. It’s a good idea to talk to teachers about what they observe at school, but we advise against asking teachers to talk to your teenager about the fact they’re having trouble making friends. Talking to another responsible adult about your teen’s problems making friends can be helpful. But if you talk to the teacher, and the teacher ends up talking to your child about their social issues, you may embarrass them – especially if you didn’t ask their permission first.
One last note about fitting in, clothes, fashion, and appearance: the most important thing you can do for your teen is to encourage them to be genuine. If they really, really want to have the latest fashion item, or wear makeup, or be seen with the newest phone on the market, there’s nothing inherently wrong with those things. However, true friends become true friends because of things money can’t buy, such as their sense of humor, personality, shared experiences, and common interests and aspirations. Those things are real, those things endure – and those things form the foundation of healthy relationships that can last a lifetime.