To foster healthy friendships

To foster healthy friendships

Photo for representation.

A while ago, my little nephew sent me a photo of him sitting close to a girl of his age.

“Is she your girlfriend?,” I asked.

“No, she is my friend-girl,” came his prompt reply.

I admire those of the young generation who can understand, connect and enjoy friendships during the onset of adolescence, as growing up in conservative middle-class families, young people are neither taught sex education nor are they taught how to deal with the opposite sex.

Signs of trouble

We are seeing more and more of younger children who have not yet attained puberty, trying to behave like adolescents. These children are referred to as “tweens”, which is a short form of ‘betweens’. They are no longer the carefree little kids scampering around without a worry in the world.  They too want to have girls or boys as friends because they see others strutting about with these conquests and also as they watch such relationships through the media.

Even today, there is still subtle discrimination in the way boys and girls are treated in their growing years. Boys are allowed to be adventurous, risk-takers, but they are ridiculed if they ‘cry like a girl’. Girls are told to protect their modesty, restrict their friendship, and not allow boys to get ‘too close’. As they come to adolescence and start feeling attracted, they realise that they have to interact clandestinely and hide from adults. This leads to guilt, restlessness, emotional turmoil, confusion and shame if they are ‘caught’. 

Children who find themselves getting thrilled, excited and attracted to others, start looking for ways and means to get close to them. Some only dream of having romantic relationships but have trouble expressing themselves. Such children are suppressing their strong emotions and this leads to them getting obsessed. They may also get distracted from studies and withdraw into a dream world.

Children also often use social media to communicate as it gives them a comparatively secret and safe avenue to conduct ‘e-relationships’.  What starts as a platonic exchange of pleasantries and compliments can at times move towards intimate conversations. This may lead to the exchange of unwanted information and photographs. It may also build stronger desires for adolescents to get physically close to their object of desire.

Such clandestine relationships carry with them, the possibility of guilt and secretiveness, making adolescents avoid family and friends. In extreme cases, this can also lead to isolation as we see kids shut themselves in their rooms. They also run the risk of getting caught and scolded, being told that they are doing ‘dirty’ things and that brings about a sense of shame. If and when the fleeting relationship breaks, one or both could undergo depression, sadness and despair. All this affects the academics and grades – leading to further reprimands, shame and a sense of failure.

Another threat to such secretive relationships is the possibility of jealousy and heart-breaks, being ridiculed by their peers. Long-lasting friendships crumble when romance takes away the friend from his or her gang. Gossip, body-shaming, cyber-bullying raise their ugly head.

Enlightening and guiding

Let us start with first understanding and accepting that what such boys and girls are doing is not something ‘bad’, as they are only giving in to their inner urges. If parents or elders exert pressure or control, adolescents naturally try to hide their social interactions. With social media offering innumerable opportunities to converse and talk privately, policing them is neither practical nor desirable.  Concerned adults need to devise better and more balanced ways to guide adolescents through the tumultuous phase of infatuations and obsessions.

The process of helping children to form healthy relationships should start much before the onset of their hormones.  Simple activities like explaining the role and differences between boys and girls can be done when children are in middle school. Life skills education should include gender-awareness.
Beginning with the definition and significance of family, children can be taught how father (boy) and mother (girl) formed a permanent bond, committed to a life-long relationship, which led to the formation of a family through the birth of their children. They should be made aware of how the family is the nest and refuge that provides protection, love, warmth and comfort that nothing else can.

The next step would be to explain how the boys and girls in school are an extended family, who can be excellent friends, buddies, emotional support and team members. If a child does not get unduly romantically involved, everyone can be his friend and he can enjoy the company of all his peers without any guilt, jealousies, regrets or confusion. This teaching should be a continuous one, not a one-time lecture. When organising school events, team spirit should be built up the same way a family function is organised by every individual contributing in different ways.

The concept of boyfriends or girlfriends should be demystified to explain that you can have any number of ‘friend-boys’ or ‘friend-girls’. The concept of delayed gratification, waiting to grow up and find the most suitable life partner should be imbibed continuously because today’s children are living in an environment of instant gratification ⁠— getting whatever they desire within minutes. Children should be subtly taught that relationships are not instant noodles.

The most important thing to underline is open communication. Adults need to listen more to children. No topic should be taboo or ‘dirty’. Children should grow up in an environment where they can express their feelings and desires openly without being reprimanded. They need proper guidance on how they can manage their emotions without suppressing them. Since all actions are a consequence of emotions, proper awareness, acceptance and management of strong feelings automatically lead to balanced and disciplined actions.

Adults need to be good role models to counter the distorted versions of relationships presented by the media.  They need to create an environment both at home and at school that upholds the values of family and love and have free and unrestricted communication that appeases the curiosity of growing children.

(The writer is founder, Banjara Academy, Bengaluru)