It’s an interesting, dare I say, even exciting (steady on!) time for sex and relationship education (SRE) in Britain. Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism movement, has been using her influence as one of Britain’s most prolific campaigners to get rape and consent top of the agenda. The Coalition for Men and Boys, with former Loaded editor-turned-pornography-expert Martin Daubney at the helm, is devising ways to broach the topic of the impact of the digital age on ideas about sexual norms with teenagers in a non-judgmental fashion. Meanwhile, the LGBT+ community is pushing for and, in some schools, starting to achieve, more visibility within the curriculum.
All of the above represents excellent and necessary progress. The leaps and bounds we are making in the "S" arena of SRE have been shown to correlate to a reduction in teenage pregnancy. The education sector should be applauded for, during a time of unprecedented financial and resource-based difficulties, actively looking for innovative ways to tackle the problems of, for example, sexual assaults in school grounds and on college campuses, as well as higher instances of mental health issues and suicide amongst LGBT+ pupils.
However, the research I conducted throughout the most recent academic year showed that it’s the "R" in SRE for which children and teenagers would like, and aren’t necessarily getting, more information. Friendships are a cornerstone of wellbeing at all stages of life, but this is never more true than when we are at school.
Thrown into an intense environment with our peers at a time when we are experiencing rapid development both emotionally and physically, raging hormones and an unprecedented dopamine spike, and the net result is powerful relationships, the impact of which (whether positive or negative) can continue to reverberate throughout our lifetimes. Indeed, peer "bullying" mentors at the one pioneering school I visited told me that they spend most of their time on the job dealing with what they consider to be fairly pedestrian friendship difficulties.
New relationships in a new school year
Come September, school staff will witness the creation of new friendship dynamics as pupils navigate the various stages of social interaction which, despite all the technological advances since, haven’t altered radically since psychologists Tuckman and Jensen produced their framework for understanding groups in 1977:
Forming – When a new group comes together they can experience uncertainty and anxiety as they look for leadership, direction and safety. They’ll also have a tendency to make assumptions about one another, which often transpire to be erroneous.
Storming – After a hierarchy is tentatively established, it will then often be challenged and this can result in so-called "naked conflict".
Norming – After challenges are ironed out, group members accept the status quo. This is when sub-groups, each with their own designated "leader", begin to form.
Performing – A golden moment for educators, when everything is settled within social groups, meaning that pupils can concentrate fully on their studies. This stage is, sadly, often short-lived, meaning that the above phases repeat themselves throughout the academic year.
Mourning – When the enforced six-week break of summer comes around, pupils who have partaken in intense friendships often feel a disproportionate sense of loss.
One role teachers could play in minimising any potential damage as a result of this process is to manage pupil expectations. This is not to diminish the closeness young people feel with their peers, since most of us remember the friendships we had at school as being the most powerful and significant we ever experienced, but it is well-established in expert thinking that the vast majority of friendships have a shelf life. Most friendships are destined to end, but, crucially, that doesn’t in any way diminish their value or significance during their duration.
One of the most toxic myths, in my experience, when it comes to friendship is the notion of the BFF ("best friend forever"). We are taught, by insidious, romanticised, pop-culture type ideas, that friendships aren’t "real" unless they last a lifetime. And yet, even as an adult, our psychological development happens in cycles of approximately seven years. This means we are now completely different in terms of our values, perspective and beliefs than we were seven years ago, and, as such, our relationships might no longer be fit for purpose (hence the infamous "seven-year itch" in marriages).
During childhood and adolescence, these changes are accelerated. Our BFF in September can legitimately become our nemesis, or more likely just a distant friendship-memory, by the following August. And that’s actually as normal as it is OK.
We often edit and airbrush our friendships in retrospect, declaring that people have been our "best friends since primary school" when, in reality, if you have managed to remain friends with someone you knew at school, it’s more than likely a person who you either didn’t like, or didn’t notice, at first. I believe we do this unconsciously, as a result of trying to fit the Hollywood notion of life-long camaraderie. This can, however, make the young people in our orbit feel as though their social difficulties represent personal failures.
This summer, I’m going to take some time to reflect honestly on my friendships so that, come September, I can sprinkle my SRE lessons with some realistic perspective on the "R".
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer, campaigner and visits an average three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets as @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here