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Preteens are often really focused on their social lives. This includes friendships, and sometimes crushes and first relationships. Here’s how to talk with your preteen about good communication and treating others with respect.

What should I keep in mind?

Friendships and social lives become extremely important at this age. In middle school, your preteen is trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in. Part of that development means that they start valuing their relationships with their peers and friends a lot more.

But don’t let that convince you that you don’t matter anymore. They may seem more distant, but they’re still listening to you and learning from you. You can still be their greatest source of support, and you’re a big influence when it comes to learning to communicate better and have healthy friendships and relationships.

You can help your preteen have healthy friendships and relationships, and communicate well. You can’t shield your children from hard experiences — like friendships or relationships ending, or feeling left out, ignored, or disrespected. But you can help them treat others with respect, stand up for themselves, and seek out healthy friendships and relationships. You can do that by listening to them and talking with them about what’s going on in their life and helping them think through what makes any kind of relationship healthy.

Communicate your values and expectations when it comes to friendships and relationships. What kind of friend or partner do you want your preteen to grow up to be? What kind of people do you want them to have in their life? Think about what you value when it comes to friendships and relationships — like respect, trust, equality, for example, and figure out how you can share those ideas with your preteen.

How do I talk about healthy friendships with my preteen?

Friendships can play a really important role in your preteen’s development. It’s normal for your preteen’s friendships to become more intense. They might want to spend all their free time talking to their friends online, for example, or feel like “best friends” is a sacred bond.

Adults know that friendships don’t often last forever, but try not to belittle your preteen’s friendships. In fact, helping them navigate these increasingly complicated relationships can help them have fulfilling friendships and romantic relationships when they’re older.

Stay involved by actively listening when your preteen talks about their social life and by asking open ended questions about their friends. (For example: What are they like? What do you like about spending time with them?) Try to meet their friends and get to know them as much as you can. And let your preteen know that they can always talk with you about their friends.

You can help your preteen understand these important — and sometimes painful — lessons about friendships:

  • Friendships change and shift over time. For example, it’s normal for your best friend in elementary school to be a different person than your best friend in middle school or high school.

  • Wanting to hang out with new people is totally okay. You don’t have to stick to 1 friend group. Sometimes your interests change and you want to hang out with people you have new things in common with — and that’s totally okay. But what’s not okay is being mean to your old friends.

  • You can have a disagreement with someone but still be respectful. Everyone has disagreements sometimes — even the closest friends in the world. But people who care about each other treat each other with respect, even when they disagree with each other. Spreading rumors about someone, turning other people against them, name-calling, betraying their trust by sharing their secrets, and physical violence are never okay.

  • Real friends don’t pressure you into doing things you don’t want to do. Respect means never pressuring someone to do something they’re not comfortable with. A good friend is someone who cares about your feelings and respects your choices.

How do I talk about healthy relationships?

Preteens are less likely to start having romantic relationships than teens — but it still happens sometimes. These relationships are often very short lived, and may not involve any physical intimacy like kissing.

The things that happen in these early relationships can feel intense and like the most important events that have ever happened to them. Listen actively and ask them open ended questions about the relationship. Ask to meet their partner and try to get to know them a little.

If you don’t want them to date at all until they’re older, have a conversation about what age/maturity level would be OK with you for them to start dating or having a relationship. You may decide only group dates/hang outs are OK. Just make sure your preteen is involved in setting rules so they feel listened to and on board with everything. They’re more likely to follow the rules if they’ve been part of setting them.

No matter if your preteen is starting to have relationships or not, you can help them start understanding what a healthy relationship looks like. TV, movies, and music can be helpful conversation starters. See 2 characters in a show modeling respect and love? Point it out! If you see unhealthy or abusive behavior, talk about it. Ask your preteen: What things would make them feel safe and cared for in a relationship? What wouldn’t be okay with you?

If your preteen is in a relationship with someone older than them, that can be a sign of an unhealthy relationship. If you’re worried about their involvement with someone older than them, trust your gut. Ask them what’s going on, and make sure they know they can tell you anything that’s happened to them that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Learn more about what to do from RAINN.

How do I talk about respecting boundaries and sexual consent?

When it comes to sex and relationships, being able to talk about and respect boundaries is extremely important. Asking for consent is how you learn about another person’s boundaries, and how you avoid sexually assaulting someone.

It’s not too early to talk about boundaries and consent. In fact, asking for consent and respecting people’s boundaries is an important skill in everyday life and is best practiced long before anything sexual happens. Understanding the importance of respecting other people’s boundaries helps preteens resist peer pressure and avoid being the peer that pressures.

People who respect other people’s boundaries don’t force or pressure other people into doing things they don’t want to do. If your preteen feels pressured into something by a friend or partner, that’s a sign of a bad friend or partner.

Remind your preteen:

  • If anyone tries to make you do anything you don’t want to do, you can tell them, “I don’t want to do that. Let’s do something else instead.” If they don’t listen, try not to hang out with them anymore.

  • In a relationship, it’s never okay for 1 person to pressure the other to do anything they don’t want to do.

  • It’s never okay to touch someone in a sexual way without their consent. If someone does that to you, you can always tell me, your teacher, or your [aunt/uncle/grandparent/another adult you trust.]

  • Rape and sexual assault are crimes, and they’re never the fault of the victim.

If you’re unsure how to talk about these topics, you can read about consent and sexual assault to get more familiar — or you and your preteen can read about it together. You can also use TV, movies, or the news as a way to start conversations.

Discussions about sex, consent, sexual assault, and rape aren’t just for girls. Talking with boys about these topics helps them understand right from wrong, and anyone can be a victim of sexual assault or rape — including boys. If you’re worried your preteen has been assaulted, abused, or raped, go to RAINN for more information and support.

How do I talk about peer pressure and making good decisions?

Your preteen probably wants more than anything to impress their friends and feel like they fit in. You can help them learn how to handle that pressure and make good decisions by building their self-esteem and helping them think for themselves.

Here are some things you can do to help your preteen combat peer pressure.

  • Be firm about your rules. Let your preteen know that peer pressure is going to happen, but they still have to follow the rules.

  • Give them an out. Let them know they can use you as an out in tricky situations, by saying something like "I'd get in major trouble..." Or you can have a coded text message if they want you to come pick them up or call them to get out of something that feels uncomfortable or unsafe.

  • Practice saying no. Help them come up with ideas on how to get out of situations they'll probably face like pressure to smoke, drink, steal, skip class, or cheat. Even if it feels uncomfortable, it can be really helpful to role play — having them actually say the words they’d use in tough situations really will help them when they encounter them in the moment.

  • Give them the chance to make their own choices. Preteens who are encouraged to make decisions for themselves learn to weigh the pros and cons of situations, and to say what they do and don’t want.

  • Encourage them to stick up for others. Kids need to learn to be allies to one another. Talk to them about how they would handle it if they saw someone else being pressured into something they didn’t want to do. What would they say? Who would they go to if they needed help?

  • Try to understand what motivates them. Talk with them about the reasons they might feel tempted to give into peer pressure — or why they already have if you find something out. Preteens often say they want to fit in or feel accepted, or that “everyone’s doing it.” But preteens and teens often overestimate the proportion of other kids who are doing certain things. You can help them see that.

  • Get to know their friends and their friends’ parents or guardians. Research shows that knowing your kid’s friends and knowing the parents of those friends can help your preteen stay safe and healthy.

How do I talk about healthy communication?

A big part of having healthy relationships and friendships is being able to communicate well with the people in your life. Preteens learn the most about communication from you. You can help them communicate well by modeling good communication, asking them to describe their feelings, and helping them understand how their words matter.

Treating them with respect and making it clear you expect respect in return is a good start. Giving them your full attention during conversations, making eye contact, and actively listening to what they have to say can go a long way in making them trust you and feel heard and understood.

Here are some other basics of healthy communication that you can work on with your preteen.

  • Avoid yelling and insults. Getting angry or defensive during an argument is totally normal. But encourage your preteen to take a break and cool off if they’re getting upset.

  • Use "I statements.” Encourage your preteen to take ownership of their feelings rather than blame or accuse the person they’re upset with. "I feel ___ when ___" works better than "You're making me ___."

  • Own your feelings. Encourage your preteen to talk about their feelings early and often instead of holding onto things. Pushing your feelings aside for a long time can lead to lower self-esteem or big fights that could’ve been avoided. If your preteen is having a problem with a friend, you can help them figure out how to bring it up.

  • Apologize genuinely. Everyone makes mistakes. Saying you’re sorry (including why you’re sorry, acknowledging the hurt you’ve caused) goes a long way in helping to move on after a disagreement.