Wes: It’s no surprise that a big part of my job working with teenagers is helping them negotiate the complex map of social life in middle and high school. Since adolescence includes a big helping of sexual energy, kids devote a lot of time to honing their skills as romantic couples. But an even larger chunk goes to figuring out how to bond with friends, which is often the more difficult task. As strange as the ritual may seem to those of us over 30, the teen “dating” world actually follows some fairly predictable rules. Friendship does not.
It’s harder to guide kids toward making and keeping close friendships in part because their social groups look a lot like European alliances just before World War I, as teens jockey for position in the social hierarchy, and any false move can set things off in the wrong direction. This gets a little better toward the end of high school, but social drama often extends well into college.
In responding to this, the best advice for teens goes against every fiber of their social culture: Pay more attention to the authentic people you have a chance to hang out with than how popular someone makes you look or feel. Very often, real friends aren’t the people who know how to get to the top of the hierarchy and stay there. They’re the ones who keep your secrets, don’t undercut you in the dating pool and give back as much as they take in the relationship. They notice your authentic self and are more interested in that than the mask you wear to get through the day. Those are the friendships that last and the ones you’ll take with you for the rest of your life.
Miranda: Wes is right. Real friends can be hard to find — the ones who will have your back, stick up for you, and always stand by you. These are the people you will actually want to stay in touch with once you leave high school.
There’s no problem with having people at work, in classes and sports that you get along with, but beware of situational or fair-weather friends. Don’t get too attached to a friendship that is only convenient for you and the other person. If there isn’t any actual bonding, you shouldn’t expect the relationship to be long-lasting. Those situations may be great opportunities to meet people, but for a real friendship to develop you have to put yourself out there. It’s a lot harder to make friends if you’re not friendly.
It might sound corny, but making real friends also means being yourself. The only way to connect with someone who likes your personality is to show that personality. If you take classes and get involved in clubs and extracurricular activities that you like, you are bound to meet people who are similar to you. True friends are loyal, honest and caring, and they know that friendship is a two-way street. If you aren’t a “real” friend to people, they won’t be one to you.
Next week: Off to college but not out of the house. A reader asks for help.