Middle school can be an awkward time socially. Kids who have been friends since kindergarten are suddenly going separate ways — some are still into playing, while others have moved on to social drama and the allures of the opposite sex. Between the cliques, bullies, mean girls, and friends you consider less than desirable, knowing how to help tweens and teens develop healthy friendships can be a challenge.

Even if your kids have good friendship skills, they may still feel at sea during these turbulent years. The one constant is home, and parents continue to provide an important role model for children.

Here are some ways you can help your kids navigate the rocky waters of the tween social scene:

  1. Talk it out

    Don’t assume too much. This is all new territory to your children, so talk openly and honestly about how friendships change during this time, and let them ask questions. Remind them of what makes a good friend (a true friend won’t force them to do things that make them uncomfortable, for instance) and what their role is as a friend.

    If they start talking about a new acquaintance, don’t be judgmental. Listen to what they say about the friend and ask what attracts them to this person. At this age if there’s a particular friend who makes you uncomfortable, you should still withhold criticism, because that may make the person even more attractive. Continue to point out the qualities that make a good friend.

  2. Just add drama

    Even with older kids, it helps to role-play the kinds of social situations your children find difficult. You might feel silly acting out an interaction between tweens or teens, but your kids can learn a lot from practicing in a safe place. If your children aren’t comfortable actually doing the role-playing, you can still talk about different scenarios and how they might handle them.

  3. Encourage their courage

    Whether your kids are moving up a grade at the same school or starting at a new one, they might be expressing anxiety about the upcoming school year. Coping with multiple classes and moving between classrooms, your children may feel tentative about the fluid social scene. They may also be nervous about reaching out to other students. By encouraging them, you’re giving them the boost they’ll need to overcome their fears. When you see your kids doing something nice for a friend, make sure to mention it.

  4. Friendship faux pas

    You’ve told your children what makes a good friend — now’s it’s time to talk about what will stop a friendship in its tracks. While older kids can shut down if they feel they’re being lectured to or criticized (on any topic!), you can make your point by explaining that good friends don’t brag, put others down, gossip, or judge people by their appearance.

    If you hear them doing any of these things, gently remind them what makes a good friend (and how it would feel to have this done to them). Older kids sometimes shelve their empathy, so it’s important to remind them of the effect they can have on others.