We should teach friendship

Written by: Sian Rowland | Published:

In today’s complex world, we must seriously consider teaching our young people about friendship...

Teenagers: one minute they’re funny, sweet and lovable, the next minute they hate the world and the world hates them back. It is not easy being a teen, as they go through major emotional and physical changes that prepare them for adulthood.

These changes are reflected in their relationships. Often we see how friendships forged in childhood become turbulent and frustrating, while new friendships take longer to flourish.

Friendships are pivotal to a teen’s life as they begin to step away from family bonds and create new habits for an independent future. An argument with family or friends can seem life-changing to a teenager and can easily disrupt their learning.

That’s why it is crucial that we support our young people through the minefield of their teenage years. We want to support them both emotionally and mentally, but we also want to make sure they maximise their academic potential.

You might be sceptical about the idea of lessons on friendship. Isn’t that just something you pick up as you go along – isn’t that just life? Well, we might not be able to cover every aspect of relationships in a single lesson or even a series of lessons, but taking time to talk through these issues in a supportive environment is crucial.

The current crop of teens will be the first to grow up in a world of 24-hour social media. Things have moved quickly: until recently we had chatrooms and forums, but now teens bounce between an array of multimedia platforms, carefully orchestrating their personal online brand. These can be great social tools, but they also open up a world of angst.

Social media engenders FOMO (“fear of missing out”) as friends appear to sashay through a world of parties, holidays and seemingly spontaneous adventures. We know it is only half-real, or entirely fake, but selfie filters and photo-ready poses can give others a powerful sense of alienation. This problem has always been there, but with social media it is now sharply in focus.

As parents and teachers, we need to give young people the skills to manage their social media use and how they react to the busy world around them. In the worst cases, a breakdown in a friendship can be played out over social media in the most public way.

If you are not getting enough likes or comments, or receiving abuse from a stranger online, rejection is everywhere and it can seem impossible to escape.

Despite the constant background chatter of social media, a recent study from Relate revealed that the millennial generation are lonely: 32 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds described themselves as “always lonely”, and we can expect younger generations to encounter the same experience.

The same survey said this about relationships: “People with very good quality relationships were almost twice as likely to never feel down, depressed or hopeless as those who reported having average relationships with their friends.”

This underlines what we might already know: supportive, healthy friendships are an important part of everybody’s mental health. This is particularly true for teenagers, as their brain is in the process of rewiring itself in preparation for adulthood. The last area of the brain to fully develop is associated with complex thought and decision-making – the most important aspect of relationship management.

Here are a few basic things to consider before approaching lessons on friendship:

  • It is vital to give students space and time in the classroom to explore the more complex facets of friendships through debate and discussion. Make sure the classroom is a place where positive language, positive behaviour and supportive relationships are properly considered.
  • Your listening skills are key – and they always require practice! Ask yourself what tone to take for your guidance to be assertive and nuanced, rather than pushy or aggressive. Having a clear idea of your message is also key.
  • Make sure to remind students that, despite their best efforts, problems will still arise. That’s completely natural, so it is important to have a confidante in times of need. That could be a teacher, a relative or a friend.
  • After the lesson, make sure students know where to go for help both in and out of school if they need it, for example a school nurse or counsellor.

Rise Above for Schools, a recent PSHE resource from Public Health England, is a good starting point. The lesson plan on Forming Positive Relationships will help your students to manage changes in their relationships, giving them an opportunity to explore scenarios in detail before they occur, and helping them to make informed decisions.

The materials from Rise Above for Schools include video content that is co-created by young people and led by social influencers from a range of backgrounds. By taking this approach, we can quickly nip problems in the bud. Those problems might seem small to us as adults, but for teens they can feel insurmountable and can quickly snowball in a way that affects their home life, their studies and their future prospects.

If we can prevent problems before they arise, we can help to support students’ long-term mental health and academic progress – so it is a win-win for everybody.

  • Sian Rowland is a former deputy head teacher and PSHE specialist delivering confidence workshops in schools, with an interest in raising attainment through high quality PSHE training and teaching.

Further information

  • Rise Above for Schools provides PSHE resources to support secondary school teachers when promoting positive health, wellbeing and resilience among young people aged 11 to 16. Find out more at www.nhs.uk/riseabove/schools
  • To access the Forming Positive Relationships lesson plans, visit http://bit.ly/2HM32Th


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