Matheus Ferrero, Unsplash photo

One of parents’ most common concerns for their tweens/teens has to do with the kids’ friendships. Parents wisely understand that peers have MUCH to do with how well things go for their kids. During adolescence, kids are taking lesson after lesson in friendships…and lest you worry, it really IS part of the developmental territory! After all, as they leave home, they better have a solid new “family” to lean on. 

As undemocratic as it might sound, not all friends are created equal…some are better, some are not-so-close; some are hobby-friends; some are show-up-when-your-mom-is-in-the-hospital friends. There are some meet-on-the-down-low friends and some introduce-to-your-grandma friends. We have friends for different reasons and friends for different seasons.

This is a fact which most adults freely acknowledge
but a fact which most teens are just encountering.

Because friends are SO important especially during adolescence and young adulthood, our kids are learning this oh-so-important lesson almost daily. It’s important social learning because it informs who you can count on (and who you can’t) and for whom you have to show up and for whom you don’t. Here are some thoughts on varying levels of friendship.


A-level Friends are few in number, probably not more than 3 or 4 at any one time. They are few because they require a lot: a lot of time, a lot of attention, a lot of commitment, a lot of listening. We typically share deep values with these friends; we typically share deep connection and conversation with them. They are our “go-to” people whether we’re celebrating or mourning. They’re the ones we’ll drop everything for if they should need us in an emergency. And, they’re the ones we call when the bottom drops out on our lives. Few but mighty!


B-Level Friends are slightly more numerous, likely constitute our “posse”, our group, our clique. We likely share similar values, similar hobbies or activities but we don’t know them quite so well as our A-string. Our paths cross often and we’d maybe like to get to know them better but just haven’t got the chance yet. We share more superficial things with them and enjoy them when we’re together…but just not that often. If one of our A-Level Friends needs to be replaced, we might look to this group for the replacement.


C-Level Friends are further out from the heart of our social center. We know them recognize them, might participate on a team or in choir with them but likely don’t know much about their values, their important relationships, or what they do on the weekends. If we met them somewhere, we’d be friendly but not necessarily expect an invitation to their party.


D-Level Friends might better be called “acquaintances” because although we have seen them around and have sort of an idea of who they hang out with, our paths don’t often cross. We might not know their names though we may have shared the same classroom or worked out at the same gym.


Circles could be thought of as going on out from there, each with less familiarity and so less trust. There are a couple of hugely important lessons which seem life-critical for kids to learn:

  1. We can’t rely on everyone equally; we don’t have to “be there” for everyone equally
  2. We are allowed to select our close friends and they should treat us well (and we
    should treat them well too). I refer to this as “auditioning” someone for friendship.

Young children tend to consider everyone their friend. Parents and teachers coach kids to be nice to everyone and being nice is relatively superficial since young kids don’t typically share much or rely a lot on their peers. Proximity is the key ingredient to most young kids’ friendships. If we’re in the same class/Brownie troop/soccer team, we can be pals. If that changes next year, so long friendship.

The 10-12 year window of adolescence is THE developmental window for learning about relationships: how to approach; how to include; how to exclude; how to encourage, support, dump, protect oneself from a “frenemy”…. The social lessons in adolescence are myriad and often painful as missteps are made and peers are oh-so-eager to correct/reject! We will see our kids making tons of mistakes despite our best coaching and advice. Some things just have to be learned by experience.

As a kid leaves for college, a huge new installment of friendship-building happens. Where in the past they’ve had years to cull through possibilities, now in a few weeks they sort through a barrage of folks hoping to find their “peeps!” Errors are bound to occur. Here are a couple of examples which we can understand more clearly keeping in mind circles of friendship:


Best Roommate

Kate was happy to meet her roommate Janie and find that she and Janie shared many similar interests. For the first few days of the semester, Kate knew few other people and so Janie was a logical choice to go to meals with or to explore campus. Gradually two things happened however. For one thing, it became clearer and clearer that Janie was overwhelmed by the prospect of rush and pledging a sorority which Kate had been looking forward to for a long time. Also, Janie began telling Kate about her mental health problems in high school, cutting, depression, suicide attempts. “But now I have you for a friend. College is going to be great!” Janie said one day.

Kate wasn’t so sure. She didn’t really want to attend rush activities with Janie because she was sort of clingy to Kate. And as far as the mental health problems, Janie’s seemed way over Kate’s ability to help.

Looking at the situation through the lens of circles of friendship, although being roommates might seem like a best friend thing, in fact Kate and Janie were not A-Level pals. So when Janie began to divulge her problems and to seek Kate’s support, Kate logically felt uneasy. Also, just as Kate was seeking to broaden her circle, Janie was hoping to limit it. Setting boundaries and clarifying expectations would be important.

Another situation clarifies friendship circles too.


Who Cares?

David was part of a great group of guys and girls. Many were high school athletes; most did quite well academically and all had gained admissions into good schools. David had accepted an offer to play sports at a great college and summer was one great time after another as fall and departure approached.

One of the kid’s family had a beach house where the group was welcome and often shared happy weekends. As the group played in the water one afternoon and jumped off the dock having fun, David jumped in, then howled in pain. His lower leg had landed on a submerged broken glass; the group rushed him to the hospital. He was diagnosed with a badly damaged Achilles tendon; he underwent surgery; his doctors made it clear that if he ever wanted to walk well again, much less play sports, he needed to forego college in the fall and remain at home to recover and rehab. It was a jolting reality for all.

At first his friend group were very attentive. But as their individual departure dates approached, as their attention redirected toward college, they slowly stopped visiting. Finally they had all left for college. David grew despondent and angry that his friends had let him down. And yet he understood. As it turned out, his older brother and a high school age cousin were still in town. They came over pretty often as David went through recovery. They included David in outings and even offered to gently play a little ball once he was cleared by the doctor.

David experienced something which is not uncommon in life: things change unexpectedly, unbalancing relationships. He was fortunate that, as his A-Level pals had to head away, there were others who could move close to support and encourage him. It is not uncommon that family members become A-Level friends as life goes on.

Helping teens learn about levels of friendship takes time and experiences, some heartache and some triumphs. Ultimately, they learn the lessons for a lifetime of how to populate their lives with friends of many varying levels. It’s socially intricate but so well-worth the outcome!