A friendly word

    You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. So
    what do young people consider important when they choose friends?
    And what do they expect from a friendship? Vanessa, aged 14,
    Jasmine, 13, and two boys: Samir, 14, and 13-year-old Jack talked
    to 0-19 about friendship, and what friends are for.

    Some people make friends more easily than others and you have to
    put yourself out a bit to make friends. “If you’re lucky people
    will come to you, but on the whole it’s up to you to say hello and
    find out what people are really like and whether you can be friends
    or not,” says Samir.

    So what do young people look for in a friend? Trust and loyalty are
    important qualities. “You want someone who can keep secrets so that
    you can tell them something and they won’t blab it out to
    everyone,” says Jack. Honesty works both ways: “I want to feel that
    I can be myself, and that I don’t have to hide stuff,” says Samir.

    Being able to have a good time was most important of all. “You
    don’t want a friend who is trustworthy but boring, you want to be
    able to have a laugh with them as well. At our age I think fun is
    the number one thing. You’ve got to feel the same way and share the
    same sense of humour or it just doesn’t work,” says Vanessa.

    But friends are there for the bad times as well as the good. “You
    expect your friends to stick up for you if someone beats you up,
    and to help you through things,” says Jack. You also expect them to
    keep in touch by mobile, text and e-mail. “When we get home we just
    log onto MSN [Microsoft network]. You can have much better
    conversations out of school,” says Vanessa.

    As well as being compatible on an individual basis, friends were
    expected to share the same group identity. “In our school there are
    townies, skate bums and goths and none of them mix with each
    other,” says Jack. The only exception, they say, is if the
    friendship pre-dates the group identity. “Jack’s a townie – he
    likes pop and R’nB and sports clothes. We’re all skaters, but the
    four of us get on because we’ve known each other since primary
    school, and it didn’t really matter then,” explains Samir.

    The children agreed that there were definite gender differences in
    friendship. Girls tended to have more “best friends”, whereas boys,
    it seemed, had larger groups of friends, preferring not to depend
    on one particular individual. Having friends of the opposite sex
    was common, and they felt this had become easier from secondary
    school age.

    Vanessa gave the example of her nine-year-old brother. “If you
    mention girls to him, he’d just say ‘yuk’. When you’re younger you
    stay with your own sex, but now we’re more mature it’s OK”.
    However, all four agreed that it was much easier for girls to have
    friends who were boys than the other way round. “If boys hang out
    with girls too much, then they just get called gay. I can think of
    some boys who’d like to have friends of the opposite sex, but
    they’re scared they’ll get picked on,” says Jasmine.

    During the discussion the conversation returned several times to
    the subject of bullying. Getting picked on and being bullied is a
    major concern for these young people, and a barrier to friendships.
    “Bullies can get you to break up with your friends. They say things
    to you such as ‘we don’t like that person, and if you’re friends
    with them we’ll beat you up’,” says Samir. “If a bully decides they
    don’t like someone, then other people are scared to be associated
    with them, so they stop being their friends,” adds Jasmine. The
    young people agreed that being without friends will make you an
    almost certain target for bullies. They gave the example of a
    younger boy in their school who was always on his own and had no
    one to talk to. “He seems really shy. He’s always reading books at
    lunchtime, and the bullies have started noticing him. They throw
    things at him and kick him and call him names,” says Vanessa. But
    they felt it was hard to help him. If they tried to make friends
    with him it might be construed as patronising, and they felt it was
    pointless to enlist the help of their teachers.

    “Teachers will sort you out if you have trouble with your friends,
    but they ignore you if you haven’t got any,” says Samir.

    It was clear that the young people expected to receive more
    day-to-day support and understanding from their friends than their
    parents. They felt it was especially important, as teenagers, to be
    able to rely on this and were more likely to tell friends than
    parents if they were in trouble. “There’s always a certain level of
    taboo with parents, but your friends aren’t going to be shocked,”
    says Samir. Friends are far more likely to understand the ups and
    downs of being a teenager, which meant the young people were more
    inclined to seek out the company of friends than family.

    “At our age, when you’re having mood swings, it gets much harder to
    be with your family. Mood swings can make your family seem really
    horrible, so you want to spend more time with your friends. They
    know about it, because they’re all going through it too,” says
    Jack.

    Young people have high expectations of their friends to provide
    them with support, and when they are let down it can hit hard.
    “When things go wrong with your friends, it’s worse than when
    things go wrong with your family. At this point our friends are
    really, really important to us.

    You’ve had your family all your life, and if they’re mean to you,
    it’s like nothing new, you’re used to it. But if you’re not getting
    on with your friends then it’s much worse,” says Vanessa.

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