There’s no question how important social connections are to a teenager. They will go to almost any length to procure or maintain good social standing. Some are better at it than others, but make no mistake — every teenager struggles with peer acceptance.
We know how important friends are to a kid, and research over the years on teens and their transition to adulthood has highlighted just how crucial healthy social bonds really are. Some of the pioneers of adolescent development, the Search Institute, completed a massive study on 254,000 kids across many years and contexts in the late 1990s, leading to their seminal Developmental Assets Framework, now used worldwide.
They were able to prove through data how strong social ties with peers will lead to positive outcomes (like academic achievement and self-esteem) and fewer negative outcomes (like truancy or substance use).
They also highlight the importance of being deliberate about cultivating those key developmental relationships.
In other words, if we want to support kids truly, then we don’t leave positive friendships to chance — we guide, teach, model, and support them as they go through adolescence.
So how do we help teenagers build healthy friendships, especially when their natural bent is to build a social network of peers outside of the presence of adults?
We take the opportunity to share crucial relationship skills wrapped up in personal stories whenever possible and appropriate.
There are also helpful life skills that can be applied to building more authentic, healthy relationships. One comes from an interview someone did with Brene Brown, something I only listened to once and haven’t been able to find again, yet it stuck with me.
She told a story about a time when she was about to deliver a keynote speech to an audience she’d never interacted with before, and right beforehand saw a random person’s Tweet about her that said something like, “Why on earth is Brene Brown speaking here?” Rather than click on the link, which re-routed her to an article, she felt overcome by her sense of self-doubt and insecurity, as though everyone else was thinking the same thing she was.
Later on, she went back to the Tweet to click the link, which sent her to the opposite of a hit-piece. It was a thoughtful article about how wise the conference organizers were to bring her in, and how her perspective and research were exactly what the attendees needed to hear.
As described in the interview, she took one piece of data, misinterpreted it, and “made up a story” to tell herself, reinforcing her fragile ego at the time. She said we all make up stories about what we assume other people are thinking about us, and rarely are they accurate or flattering.
That’s the same exact thing teenagers do at a highly proficient level. A kid will hear someone say something and assume it’s about them. They will absorb their friends’ critiques at lunch about other kids and internalize them to themselves. They’ll send someone a text, receive no response, and tell a story about how that friend is mad at them for something they did or didn’t do.
Kids constantly make up false stories about their peers and social standing. But, as Brene Brown says, rarely are they accurate, and they’re certainly not ideas to live by.
To help kids learn to question the stories they tell themselves, we can share stories with them about the moments in our lives when we made up stories about what we thought our family, friends, colleagues, or acquaintances in our neighborhood thought about us. And, how powerful a skill for a teenager to have — to suspend a reaction or a behavior change just because we make an assumption about what another kid might think about us?