Help kids explore their roles with peers as friends and allies

Many types of youth settings can nurture opportunities for building positive and healthy peer relationships.

Whenever young people are involved within a group setting – whether it’s a formal school setting or a youth program taking place during the out-of-school time – it’s the responsibility of the adults who are present to ensure that kids feel safe, affirmed, welcomed and included. In fact, schools and youth organizations often have guiding principles that emphasize their commitment to providing these kinds of safe and healthy settings.

Part of this commitment and responsibility involves providing opportunities for young people to explore, develop and nurture positive and healthy peer relationships. Keep the following in mind as you explore these issues with youth:

  • While no one can “force” friendships to develop between and among kids (or adults), the potential for building positive peer relationships within a setting is greatly influenced by the overall climate. A key component for nurturing healthy relationships and settings that are free from bullying and other negative behaviors is having youth and adults work in partnership to address these issues.
  • As children go through different stages of development, the types and qualities of their friendships and peer relationships change as well. During their early school years, it’s common for kids to have lots of “best friends” simultaneously, and to frequently move in and out of friend relationships. As young people move from childhood into adolescence, their friendships become more complex and have deeper levels of intimacy. These relationships take place within the larger social settings of middle and high school, where kids may feel more pressured to “fit in” – to look or act in certain ways – in order to be accepted within a particular group. While wanting to belong and be connected with others is a basic human need, there are important differences between “fitting in” (social acceptance within a group for being like everyone else) and “belonging” (being accepted for who a person is independently). Adults can provide important opportunities for young people to explore these differences.
  • Kids (and adults) are bombarded with a steady stream of media images and messages that feature hurtful, unhealthy and toxic relationship behaviors. Provide young people with opportunities to talk about the qualities of healthy and affirming relationships. Ask for their ideas about what it means to be supportive, encouraging, trustworthy and loyal to others – and how it feels when we’re on the receiving end of these kinds of positive behaviors.
  • Help youth understand that conflict is part of all relationships, including our relationships with friends and other peers. People sometimes confuse “normal” peer conflict with hurtful behaviors such as bullying and abuse. While conflict between peers can have hurtful outcomes, it’s usually accidental and the person who caused the harm feels remorseful. This is different from bullying situations that involve a pattern of intentional harm. Stress with young people that healthy relationships involve shared power (not the “power over” of bullying situations), and those involved can choose to disengage from the relationship without fear of being targeted.
  • Finally, emphasize with young people that – while not all peer relationships may evolve into friendships, it is important that relationships with any peer are caring and respectful. Help kids explore and practice ways they can use their voices and actions to be allies for their peers, especially when they see those around them being targeted by hurtful behaviors, such as bullying.

Michigan State University Extension is leading an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments that includes resources for helping adults and youth work in partnership to create safe settings built on a foundation of healthy relationships. The initiative includes the Be SAFE: Safe Affirming and Fair Environments curriculum, which can be used in both out-of-school youth settings and in middle schools.

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