Friendship Lessons from a Fishbowl
By Linda Stade
Teaching students about healthy friendship is inherently difficult. We are asking them to examine their own relationships and emerging skills and that doesn’t come naturally. In my experience, kids respond well to a good analogy. Don’t we all?
At Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane, clinical psychologist Kristina Morgan powerfully uses the imagery of the fishbowl in talking to students about friendship at school. This analogy is also useful for parents. After all, we are often looking through the glass of the school fishbowl wondering how we can help our kids with their friendship challenges.
Here are seven lessons from the fishbowl we can use to help kids thrive socially and emotionally…
1. Choose carefully who you swim with
There is a big difference between being popular and having friends. Friends are the people we attract to ourselves when we are being authentic. Friends truly see us and they like what they see within us. In turn, we truly see them and like who we are around them. It is important to really examine our friendships and to ensure they add value to our lives.
To guide kids in reflecting on their friendships. Kristina suggests we use these questions:
Do I feel good around this person?
Do I like myself when I am around them?
Do we have things in common and enjoy doing things together?
Do I trust them?
Are they there for me?
Do I feel my calm self around them?
Do they add to my life or take from it?
These questions form part of our ongoing discussions about what is valuable in friendships.
2. Don’t dirty the water you have to swim in
Friendships change and that’s okay, friendships end and that’s okay too. As kids grow older and have different experiences, they will develop new friends. They will also grow out of some friendships. That’s normal.
A study by researchers at Florida Atlantic University found that only 1% of friendships that started in seventh grade, lasted for the full five-year period of the study. In fact, 76% of Year 7 friendships didn’t last a year. That doesn’t mean all friendships ended badly. Usually, they just drifted apart. The skill our kids need to learn is to end friendships gracefully. That may involve feeling sad or hurt, but it is an opportunity to teach kids to care for themselves emotionally.
Some teenagers believe the only way to move out of friendship is to blow it up. They mistakenly feel they need to justify moving on from a friendship by creating drama. So, there may be gossip, back-stabbing, and generally poor behaviour. Some adults do this too!
The problem with the school fishbowl is that they must keep swimming in it with the same fish for many years. If they keep dirtying the waters, by Year 12 they are going to be swimming in a toxic environment.
3. A fish belongs to a school of lots of other fish
Sometimes in friendships, kids come to believe that they need to have one best friend forever. It is understandable because that is the narrative repeatedly played out in popular culture.
On television, in books, and in our social media posts we promote the idea of a childhood best friend being the goal, and that this friend will stay with us forever. Therefore, it is understandable that kids get possessive in friendships. They feel as though they must hold on to one person and that person must hold on to only them.
In truth, we all need lots of friends. It isn’t a terribly romantic idea, but friends serve a purpose. We need:
Friends to share vulnerability with. These people help us recognise that our weaknesses and quirks are human. We are normal. These are the people we take a risk with and share our secrets.
Friends to have fun with. We all need an outlet from being serious. We need people who share our interests and hobbies. Our fun friends might also make us laugh and relax.
Friends to think with. We think more effectively about serious issues when we can think aloud with someone else. Sharing and growing ideas about the world and who we are is an important aspect of friendship and being human.
No friend can be all things to you, and you can’t be all things to someone else. It takes a lot of people to make a best friend!
4. Don’t get too big for your fishbowl
In their journey through school, some kids earn a lot of status but don’t garner a lot of support or connection. These are the big fish. You can pick them immediately. They are the kids who mistake popularity and power for friendship. They might have the most friends on social media and the most impact on what is trending at school, but other kids also avoid being too close to them for fear of being squashed. This is a sign of undeveloped social skills.
Make sure kids know the keys to true friendship, and the wonderful connection that goes with it, are vulnerability and authenticity.
5. Even fish have boundaries
Even in a fishbowl, we need to create and manage boundaries. Boundaries are the invisible spaces we create around ourselves to keep us physically and emotionally safe. Boundaries are born of knowing and valuing ourselves.
Fish very rarely bump into one another because they instinctively allow space for themselves and space for others. It is a parent’s role to help instil this deep personal understanding in children.
At a time when belonging seems so important, our teenagers often allow their boundaries to be eroded and they are less discerning about who they allow into their space. Remind them, not everyone deserves their friendship, but everyone deserves their respect.
6. Swim in more than one fishbowl
Although school is a fishbowl, it isn’t the only fishbowl on offer. Encourage kids to diversify and swim in different waters. They can make friends in sports clubs, service organisations, their neighbourhood, and in countless other environments.
It may require a healthy dose of bravery for kids to try new activities and meet new people. However, relationship skills, and life generally, are enhanced when they have friends in lots of different places and can jump out of the school fishbowl regularly.
7. Forget to hold a grudge
As a kid, I was told that a fish only has a three-second memory. Ironically, I don’t remember who said it. However, I do remember thinking, what sort of tests are they doing on fish? How do they measure that? Anyway, there is something to be said for having a short memory in a fishbowl.
Occasionally at school, kids are going to bump into other fish and there will be conflict. That’s normal. However, repairing after conflict and moving on is also normal. Teach kids that we simply can’t keep conflicts going with people we have to see every day. It will make us miserable and wear us out. Instead, we can learn the lessons the conflict teaches us and then move on.
Finally… Just keep swimming
There is no doubt the school fishbowl offers challenges, but our kids grow through challenges. They learn through having real emotional experiences and having you as their model and coach. Then, as with all skills of value, friendship takes practise, practise, practise. So, just keep swimming.