It’s summer, and you’re away at camp. Your friend back home calls you often to talk. But you don’t always answer, because you’re busy with your camp friends, or you simply miss her calls. She’s insulted. She thinks you’re leaving her in the dust. You’re incredulous. You wonder: Is she really that insecure in your friendship that she needs to talk to you every single day?
Of course, a little bit of communication prior to camp might have helped, but this is just an example. In reality, things like this happen every single day, albeit on a subtler level. You bring your friend notes when he’s sick, he never returns the favor. Your friend broke up with a guy, and now he wants to hang out with you, and you’re not sure what to do. Two of your friends decide they wanna sit with a different group at lunch, and they leave you in the dust.
If you’re a teenager, your social life might be filled with drama. Whether you have a clique or you don’t, friends in general can be—in a nutshell—difficult. They could be hard to make, hard to please, hard to manage, hard to keep up with, or even just hard to be around.
Why, oh why, are friends so hard?
Any time you’re close with someone, some conflict is inevitable. Even the best of friends can get into disagreements. These don’t always have to be dramatic fights (though there are those too—see above.) They can be simple misunderstandings. An experience of hurt feelings. A strange look thrown in your direction, leaving you wondering what happened.
If you have a different set of values or expectations from your friends, it can be even harder to maintain your friendships. For example, if you aren’t big on birthdays, but your friend goes all out for you, he might get offended when you’re not suitably grateful or when you don’t reciprocate when his birthday comes around.
And while digital technology can be a relief for introverts and teens with social anxiety (as it doesn’t necessitate face-to-face interactions) it’s likewise a breeding ground for confusion, doubt, mixed messages, and misunderstandings. Friendship drama can thus be exacerbated by social media. For example, on Instagram or Facebook, you can find out about a party or event you weren’t invited to within minutes of someone posting a photo. Social media can also give you anxiety: Why didn’t Brandon “like” my post? Why did Aaron read the text and not answer? Why did Ella unfriend me? You may wonder: Does so-and-so really like you? Are they mad at you? According to a Pew study, 70% of adolescents who use social media say they have experienced drama among their friends on social media.
How DBT Can Help
When conflict is so inevitable, what’s a teen to do?
One idea is to consider the tips in Dialectical Behavior Therapy. DBT’s Interpersonal Effectiveness skills are all about making, and fixing, friendships (and relationships in general). For example, if you’re in a conflict between friends, DBT teaches you to THINK:
- Think about the situation from the other teen’s perspective
- Have empathy for what they’re going through
- Interpret their behavior for the good, even if it’s hard
- Notice all the good things your friend has done for you, or the ways they’re trying to make peace
- Kindness: Try to be kind and gentle when approaching them. Don’t attack or give threats, even if you’re angry at them.
DBT also has a few more tips that are useful for managing teen drama:
- Be truthful. Don’t lie or exaggerate, even if you want to avoid getting blamed. When describing something that happened, stick to exactly what happened.
- Check the facts. In a specific situation where there are hurt feelings, review the facts of what happened. If you did nothing wrong, don’t feel guilty. But if you think you’ve wronged someone, or your behavior went against your own moral code, apologize and do your best to make repairs.
- If you are hurt, express your feelings using “I” statements, instead of “You.” For example, you can say “I feel embarrassed when you say you think I should lose weight. It makes me feel low” instead of “You’re being really mean when you XYZ…”
- Be assertive. If you are trying to make your needs or requests heard in a conflict, be confident. For example, if a friend keeps asking you to do something you don’t want to do, you can say no clearly. You don’t have to apologize or feel bad unnecessarily.
- Remember that your friends cannot read your mind. Healthy communication is essential to any relationship, but especially friendships. If you want more trust, more sensitivity, or even just a willingness to be more flexible with your weekend plans, you need to communicate that to your friends.
What to Do if You Need More Help with Friends
Sometimes, knowing how to maintain a friendship doesn’t come naturally. This is especially the case if a teen has social anxiety, or has anger management issues (which is the case in teens with oppositional defiant disorder or disruptive mood dysregulation disorder). Friendships suffer as a result of the teen’s mental health or behavioral issues.
However, they really don’t have to.
While DBT is a useful tool for all teens, it is especially helpful for those whose mental health, emotional, or behavioral issues are impeding their social lives. In these cases, adolescents could benefit from a rigorous DBT program, such as a teen DBT residential treatment center or intensive outpatient program. In addition to teaching teens how to manage their relationships most effectively, the DBT curriculum also teaches adolescents how to regulate their emotions, tolerate distress, be flexible with others, and practice mindfulness.