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Navigating tween relationships: Here's what to know

Young people develop strong social connections through their relationships with peers.
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Peer acceptance means a great deal to middle-schoolers, and this sense of belonging often trumps anything else. Young people develop strong social connections through their relationships with peers, and they have a powerful influence on how teens relate to the world. These friendships teach adolescents about self-expression, social behavior, and how to apply empathy when dealing with others. Middle school can be an awkward time socially, though, as friendships are constantly shifting and changing. Adolescents who have been friends since elementary school may find that they are no longer close, or they are at different levels of social development. Some may still want to play with toys, while others are more interested in the social drama of middle school and their new awareness of sexuality. This is also a time when cliques, “mean girls” and fickle friends present themselves, but you can guide your middle-schooler and help him learn techniques to recognize and establish functional and healthy relationships.

Help your child identify his social strengths and challenges. Confidence is one of the best tools to overcome the challenges of the unpredictable middle-school years, and you can nurture your child’s self-esteem by pointing out his social strengths as he exhibits them. He may be a good listener, a loyal friend, or a generous and empathetic peer. Whatever his strengths may be, you can help boost his confidence by pointing out these qualities to your teen at appropriate times. Remind him that being true to himself is very important and he needs to be clear about his views of right and wrong – even if they are evolving—and to know when to not follow the crowd. You can also talk to him about any social challenges he is facing and discuss ways he can turn those into learning experiences.

Monitor your adolescent’s friendships. It’s important to encourage his independence and friendships outside the home and to get to know his friends and not make quick judgments about them. If you have reason to believe that he is hanging out with a bad crowd, remind him that you understand his need for social acceptance, but that hanging out with the wrong people may endanger his safety or affect his future. Education consultant Jennifer Miller suggests that you use caution when expressing concern about friends, as opposing these relationships can create a stronger bond between the peers and alliance against you. Director of the Rutgers Social and Emotional Laboratory Maurice Elias suggests that if you prevent your adolescent from hanging out with those you deem dangerous, you should explain your reasons, but don’t expect him to understand. Elias adds that it's not a parent’s job to always make popular decisions, and you have to take action when you think his safety is at stake. Creating and using teachable moments can also have a large impact on the way adolescents develop their values. For example, if someone in your child’s friend group has been caught drinking, talk about the issue and the consequences of their actions. Some of the best teaching moments involve real-life examples, and you can use these opportunities to engage your child in these types of conversations on a regular basis.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab; Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids; and Michele Borba, Author and Educational Psychologist.