Friendships in Middle School Begin at Home

Researchers from Penn State University followed 687 families for three years. Each family consisted of a mother, a father, and an adolescent child. The three year period spanned the adolescent’s 6th, 7th, and 8th grade years…the dreaded middle school years. (Read more here.) The study examined whether family relationships impact friendship during middle school. Of course, the short answer is “yes,” “you betcha,” “without a doubt.” But, the study did expose a couple of very interesting nuances to that “yes.”

First, a mother’s rejection, a father’s rejection, and the overall family climate not only predicted changes in the quality of the adolescent’s friendships but their sense of loneliness as well.

Second, feeling rejected by one’s father in 6th grade predicted social anxiety in 7th grade and social anxiety in 7th grade predicted loneliness in 8th grade. This was significant for rejection by one’s father but not so much in regards to one’s mother. It seems (in agreement with other research) that rejection by one’s father impacts how confidently a person moves into the world outside the home.

So, if you want your children to have the ability to develop and maintain high quality, positive friendships in middle school, nurture and strengthen your relationship with them. Their ability to form positive relationships outside the home begins at home…with you. Dads, this seems to be especially true for your relationship with your teen. Here are a few key ways to strengthen your relationship with your children.

  • Spend time together…lots of time together. Enjoy uninterrupted time with your children. Put aside the distractions (cell phones, papers, TV) and get to know your children. Learn what they like and who they like. Talk about classes, interests, strengths, and fears. Learn about their struggles in the community and which peers present them with the biggest challenges and why. Enjoy fun stuff and endure boring stuff…together. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn. And, you’ll be amazed at how cool your children really are.
  • Listen more than you lecture. The more you lecture, the less they’ll talk. The less they talk the less you will know them.  On the other hand, the more you listen, the more they’ll talk…and the more you’ll get to know them. Listen intently. Listen patiently. When they say something that arouses your urge to lecture, Don’t Do It! Instead, show empathy for their feelings around the topic. And, get curious about their thinking about the topic. Ask them questions out of a genuine curiosity to know them better. As you do, they will continue to talk…and you will get to know them better.  They will continue to talk…think…and learn. They’ll learn about the topic and you’ll learn more about them as they review their approach to the topic out loud.  All you have to do is listen and….
  • Problem-solving together. Our children will approach us with concerns and struggles when they know we will listen and empathize. As they recognize our efforts to understand their concern and their point of view, they will open up to discuss and problem solve with us. We will have created an environment of mutual respect that allows for cooperative problem solving. In the process, we will also deepen our relationship with our teen.

Practice these three actions and you can help prevent pervasive loneliness in your middle schooler. You will also increase your middle schooler’s confidence in making friends and the quality of their friendships.

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