One of the best bits of my job is meeting and chatting with parents and teachers as I travel around the country giving talks about teenage wellbeing and mental health. However recently I have noticed many more questions about how to help our young people to create good friendships, whilst hearing about increasing issues with friendship groups and isolation.

So in this blog I want to think about how we can help our young people to build healthy relationships from a young age, and maintain strong connections with other people throughout life.

Making and keeping friends is a life skill, but not one that comes naturally to all.

The building blocks

When I talk to parents about encouraging good relationships I always start with the key foundations of healthy human bonds;

·      Communication

·      Respect

·      Trust

·      Boundaries

·      Honesty

·      Compromise

·      Support

Recognising healthy relationships

The list above can help our young people to answer the question ‘is this a healthy relationship for me?’. This will be vital both for their wellbeing, and safe interactions.

These are the qualities and skills that they can think about, and check off in their mind, when considering their own friendships. It can take time to learn how and when to trust another person, how to compromise, or how to communicate well, but, as a framework, this is a great place to start.

Start a ‘sideways’ conversation (e.g. when walking/ cooking/ driving together)

Try talking to your teen or young adult about who they trust, why they trust those people, what qualities those people have, and what the defining characteristics of their loveliest relationships are.

Do those people make them laugh, listen to them properly without talking over or dismissing them, have they demonstrated their trustworthiness in positive ways and are they supportive when times are hard?

Reflecting on these characteristics can be a useful process to start to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy (bullying/ controlling/ dismissive/ untrustworthy) relationships.

Next steps

Once a young person starts to learn about what makes for a good friendship (or healthy  ‘intimate’ relationships, as the same rules apply, of course) then you may want to focus on how to make more friends, or how to build a great social network throughout life.

As I tell the teens I speak to, “humans need humans” and we build those connections throughout our lives, via school/ college, university, the workplace, having children, sports, hobbies and volunteering, for example.

The COVID disaster (again!)

Making new friends isn’t always easy though, and one of the biggest downsides of the COVID pandemic was the total disruption to young people’s social development at a crucial time in their lives.

Many young people have simply missed out on learning how to make friends, and how to deal with issues when friendships go wrong, which is resulting in very stressful scenarios and problems in classrooms and halls of residence throughout the land.

Teens have literally not learnt how to make friends, and they need our help.

If this feels familiar and you’d like to help your young people to make more friends, be more social, and be less anxious about it, then here are some thoughts which I hope will help.

What can parents do?

1.     It’s a good idea to start by laying the groundwork and having general conversations about friendships and meeting people, and how tough it has been for their generation post-pandemic.

2.     Be curious about their friends, and take an interest in why they like those people.

3.     Explore what they think is important in relationships. E.g. trust, kindness, laughing at the same stuff, common interests.

4.     Talk about how you have made friends throughout life, and how your best friends now may not be just who you knew at school, but a mix of people from all walks of life.

5.     Talk about how good friends should be able to have fun together but also have  difficult conversations if they need to, whether that is about behaviour or values that have caused conflict (e.g. not speaking up for someone, or being mean to someone). Talk about how to be a considerate friend/ flatmate in the future (cleaning up their mess, or sharing stuff).

6.     If they need a bit of help to get going, facilitate situations where they might meet new people, though a club or activity or volunteering. Slow and steady is fine, they don’t need a million friends, just a few good ones is great.

7.     Encourage them to be a good listener, show interest or sympathy, control their impulses to talk over others, and try to understand other’s perspectives.

8.     Encourage them to ask questions of new people, to take an interest in their new friend’s life, not talk about themselves the whole time, use humour if they want to, but avoid sarcasm, and remember to smile!

What can schools do?

Social skills are something that schools could be instrumental in improving, but until they have a moment to think about it (which they rarely do) many teachers tell me they haven’t thought about creating specific opportunities to actively build connections as they assumed it would happen naturally as ‘normal’ life resumed post-pandemic.

Except it hasn’t happened, so they are getting more calls from parents about ‘bullying’ when in fact poor social skills are at the heart of the matter.

1.     One thing schools could therefore try is to create 10 mins at the beginning of some classes (PSHE?) to get pupils talking to each other, in groups of 3 or 4 perhaps, to ask each other about themselves, or practice conversations with people they don’t know as well.

2.     Give them a topic, a starter question, and off they go.  This sort of social skills training could prove invaluable.

3.     A good question opener might be “tell me how you like to spend your spare time?” or “do you have a favourite podcast/book/TV character and why?”.

4.     Learn about social cues, and how to respond to them.

5.     Read more here if you are a teacher looking for ideas.

In time it will become less daunting for the teens, and it will set them up well for arriving at college, university or in the workplace, when they will absolutely need to meet and connect successfully with new people to thrive.

As a bare minimum, 6th formers should be practising these skills to help them build their confidence for life after school (and reduce the number of first year uni students who are struggling and ‘crying all the time’, according to my sources.)

Let’s get talking!

We have a real opportunity (and perhaps a duty?) to help our young people improve their social skills post pandemic, and anything we can do to support them to make friends and build healthy relationships throughout life will be of huge benefit.

They will never not need other people, so let’s start by getting them talking!