Humans are social creatures, as I’ve often written about. It’s fundamental to the philosophy of The Teenage Guide to Friends. It underpins mental well-being, too: being lonely is strongly connected with poor mental health and building good networks helps emotional well-being.
This does not mean that people with lots of friends are healthier. You don’t need lots. You just need enough. You need to know where you can go and who you can talk to when you need to. This can be a “friend” or someone you know will listen to you and support you, even if they don’t know you as a friend.
We go to different people for different things. I’ll tell my husband almost everything but there are some things I know he will be bored by or for which he might not have as good advice as, for example, a fellow-writer or another woman. So I have various groups of people that I’ll communicate regularly with, often on social media. There are loads of different groups of writers I’m in touch with and we support each other brilliantly. Whatever happens to me I always know who I will tell, whether I’m just wanting to offload or wanting advice.
But for teenagers (and others, but I’m talking about teenagers for now) this can be hard. Sometimes, you’re being excluded from a group and your friendships are going through rocky times. Sometimes, you can feel as though there isn’t someone to turn to. (There is, but I understand it can feel as though there isn’t.) Sometimes, you can really feel on your own.
Here are my top tips for teenagers
- You don’t have to talk to your parents about everything. If you’d rather tell someone else, do. Just be careful about putting a friend or relative of your parents in an awkward position: they may feel obliged to share with your parents, if they are worried about you. Talk to them about this: they can help you talk to your parents, if appropriate.
- Online forums are great for support but they are not secure. Use them for support but don’t reveal any secrets there.
- You could ask for advice “for a friend” when it’s really for you. That’s fine – loads of people do it!
- Help other people and they will help you – and you’ll feel better about asking, too. So, be a good listener and support others, and you’ll have a ready-made support network.
- Support networks and friendships come in all sorts of ways and often randomly. You might play football every week with a group of people and you find you can chat about all sorts. You might join a club at school and make a new friend. You might talk to someone you’ve never talked to and find that they’re really nice.
- When someone has helped you, thank them. They’ll be happy to help again.
- Smile. Nod. Listen. Don’t close yourself off.
- If there’s an individual or group that makes you feel bad/low/small when you share a weakness or fear or upset with them, they are not good supporters – don’t go to them for help.
- If you don’t personally know someone to talk to about whatever you need to talk about, there are plenty of other choices: a teacher or school counsellor, GP, Childline, any online organisation for a particular issue.
- Do you have suicidal thoughts? Phone the Samaritans – 116 123. They know how to help you find your way to feel positive about your life.
There are vast numbers of people out there who are good, kind, warm, caring people, and they would hate to think of you feeling that you didn’t have someone to talk to and help get through whatever worry you have.
But friendships and support networks are not one-way things. We have to build them. We have to give in order to get, to put it bluntly. So, get out there and join something, talk to someone, be pro-active. Online or offline, we’ve got to be in it to gain from it. Face to face or on social media, we have to give as well as take, listen as well as talk. And for people who are quite or very introverted, as I am, it can be hard work because really we’re happier being peaceful on our own – until we need help, and then we find that if being alone tips into being lonely, that’s not so good.
My tips for anyone for growing good friendship and support networks:
- If it’s there, join it; if it’s not, create it
- Make sure it’s a two-way thing: people need to give and listen as well as take and talk
- Don’t worry if your groups and networks change and move on often – everything changes
- Be generous but don’t always be the one who gives – people like to do things for you, too
- Try new things and you’ll meet new people
- Don’t count your friends: count on them
And remember: there is always someone to turn to, even if you think there isn’t.