The Shifting Landscape of Middle School Friendships

The Shifting Landscape of Middle School Friendships

Do you ever feel like you can’t keep up with who your middle schooler’s new best friend is? Last week it was Jane, but duh Mom, this week it’s Kate. Or perhaps you’ve watched your child become increasingly socially isolated, wondering where all of her friends have gone. This period of a middle schoolers development can be pretty chaotic and confusing, not only for your tween but also for you, the parent. Unfortunately there’s not a ton we can do to help our kids while they’re navigating this new social landscape, but here are a few things to know that can help put your tween’s behavior in context:

  1. Tweens are trying on different personalities. So much of this phase of development is exploring and experimenting. Their brains are rapidly developing, and as a result tweens are on a hunt to figure out what they like and who they want to be. Essentially, they spend a lot of time trying out different personalities.  Part of that exploration can include being friends with different people, sometimes all at once and sometimes in quick succession. A lot of times your tween is trying on friends like they might try on an outfit, they’re trying to figure out if it’s the right fit.
  2. It’s not just about convenience anymore. For the last 11 years of their life, often their friendships were about convenience. Playdates were often determined by who their parents’ friends were, or who they were seated next to in class, or who was on the soccer team, or who also liked Jojo Siwa. But now, your tweens are figuring out that those ties that used to bind them to their peers just don’t cut it anymore. They want to like their friends’ personalities, and they want to feel liked by their friends. Friendship becomes much more about compatibility than convenience in this phase, which can make it hard for us as parents when they don’t want to hang out with our best friend’s daughter anymore, or the kids in the basketball carpool are checked out on their phones and not talking to our daughter. We may not even like the kids our child is choosing to be friends with! The good news is, these friendships are often transient. The bad news is, there’s just not much we as parents can do to intervene anymore. 
  3. Social skills are important! Not everyone has them figured out quite yet.  This point is somewhat related to my last point, but is especially important for the kids who seem to be losing friends left and right. Kids want to like their friends, and that can mean that the girls who have underdeveloped social skills can end up feeling isolated and disconnected from the girls who used to be their friends. Popularity becomes immensely important at this age, and as harsh as it is, girls will often cut ties with friends who aren’t going to help them move their way up the popularity ladder. There can also be an incredibly large maturity gap in the tween years, with some girls acting much older and others still playing with Barbies. Unless the maturity level and subsequent interests of friends align, the friendship won’t last long. For those kids who are having trouble making and keeping friends at this age, my advice is always to increase their traffic patterns. Get them involved in more activities that are a good fit for their interests because that is where they are the most likely to make friends they click with.

Friendship groups become much more stable later in adolescence, usually around 16 or 17. For the lucky ones, they will have the same friends throughout the turbulent time of life, but they are often the exception and not the rule. Expect a lot of friendship upheaval during this time of your daughter’s development, and offer a shoulder to cry on for those especially difficult losses. Be patient and non-judgmental. And remember that this too shall pass.

Shannon Odell, PsyD is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lake Oswego, Oregon