If you have a teenager, you’re likely used to seeing him or her interact via electronic media with friends. Just as you may have talked on the phone incessantly as a teen, today’s adolescents use the technology available to them to interact with friends at all hours of the day or night. This in often in addition to spending time with friends after school, during the evenings, and on weekends. As a parent, you might feel as though you’ve been replaced by your teen’s friends. Don’t worry: You haven’t! But during the teenage years, friend groups take on an increasingly important role in the life of your child. Here’s a few reasons why teen friend groups are important, as well as tips for fostering good friendships for your teenager.
Focus Switches From Family to Friends
During the teenage years, your child will begin to focus less on your values and desires and more on his or her friends’. This is a normal part of development. Just as your toddler went through some pains to become less dependent on you than they were as an infant, your teen will go through a similar process as they learn more about their sense of self. Most teenagers rely on friends and friend groups to help them determine where they fit into the microsociety of school and, eventually, the larger society of your community and the world at large.
Keep in mind that when an adolescent is in high school, they are spending approximately seven hours surrounded by mostly peers. Many high schoolers also either spend time in extracurricular activities, like sports or drama club, or go to an after school job, many of which are populated by teenagers and young adults. This proximity is another reason why teens are spending more time and paying more attention to other teens.
Friend Groups Provide Practice for Adulthood
When your teenager talks to you about a problem, it’s likely that you will respond in a parental way, perhaps encouraging your teen to look for solutions to the issue. When he or she approaches a friend, however, the friend might be more likely to commiserate and allow your child to vent without really offering any solutions. This allows your teen to practice for adulthood, when they’ll need to find their own solutions to various problems that come up.
The socializing your teenagers does with his or her friend groups is exactly that: Practice for adult life. They will learn how to disagree and either look past their differences or decide to move past the relationship. Because there is less of a power and authority differential the way there is between your teen and you or between your teen and other adults, socializing with other teenagers gives your child the chance to relate to others the way he or she will during adulthood.
Peer Influence Can Have Positive Effects
You might be worried about peer pressure, which is definitely a concern during the teenage years. More common, however, is peer influence. This is when your teenager assumes that their friends would act a certain way. Even if the friends are not there during a particular situation, your teen might try to imitate what he or she expects friends to do in the situation. While this can include negative behaviors, in many cases, it turns out to be positive.
For example, if your teenager is friends with his or her teammates on the soccer team, it’s likely that those athletic kids tend to eat well, avoid destructive behaviors, keep moderately high GPAs, and follow the rules set by the coach. If your child is at a party without those friends, they might think about how their teammates would disapprove of them drinking and possibly interfering with how well the team does at the next soccer meet. This type of peer influence can be long-lasting and important to your teen’s development.
Teens With Social Anxiety or Few Friends
Some teens find it difficult to make friendships and join friend groups. If you find your teen in this situation, it might be helpful to determine whether a condition such as social anxiety or Asperger’s syndrome is to blame. It might also be a matter of your teen not being exposed to other adolescents in a relaxed atmosphere or maybe they just don’t know what to talk about. Any of these issues can and should be worked on so your teen can enjoy the benefits of having friends.
If you are concerned that your teen might have a condition that is preventing him or her from making friends, here are a few steps you can take to help.
- Take your teen for a visit to his or her physician. The doctor can perform an evaluation and refer you to a counselor, if needed.
- Have your teen join a support group if you think that your teen just needs some practice navigating social situations.
- Try role playing with your teen if you think he or she would be open to it.
- Encourage your teenager to join after school clubs. It’s difficult to make friends in classes that don’t depend on a lot of interaction. While your teenager might make friends in a chorus or drama class, or in PE, it would be difficult if his or her schedule was filled with mostly academic classes, like math and English, because conversation is often discouraged and limited to the class work being done.
When Your Teen’s Friends Present a Problem
Of course, there may be times when your teen’s friends cause you some concern. If you think that your child has gotten in with the wrong crowd, such as a friend group that likes to party or whose members have shoplifted or engaged in other crimes. It’s important to stay aware of what’s going on and to set reasonable boundaries. Talk to your teen; it’s very likely that there are characteristics that he or she likes about those friends, even if their behavior leaves something to be desired. Use caution when attempting to forbid teens from spending time with other teens; it’s likely to backfire and your teen might just sneak around. Talk to a counselor if you are unsure what to do about a peer group that seems like a bad influence.
Seeing your teen transition from spending time with you and seeking your advice to spending most of his or her time with friend groups can be difficult, but it’s part of the growing-up process. Keep in mind that teenagers still need their parents! Be there for your teen even when his or her friends are unable to, and your teen will likely still come to you with the most important issues in his or her life.