Peers are an important part of the teenage years. As parents, our teens’ transition to greater reliance on peers can be tricky to navigate. This week on Parenthetical we are talking about the ways in which parents can successfully balance supporting their teen’s expanding social network and maintaining their own positive, influential role in a teen’s life.
When I was 15 years old my friend Joe’s mother decided I was such a bad influence on Joe that she banned me from their house. I felt offended, not because Joe’s mother didn’t like me, but because she made me out to be the villain. I knew there really wasn’t much difference between Joe and me when it came to our behavior or our influence on one another. We were both risk takers, as were the rest of the guys who made up our close circle of friends.
Friends and other peers play a prominent role in the lives of teens, especially during the early adolescent years, when teens are experimenting with new interests and roles, refining their social skills and beginning to develop an identity that is unique and separate from their parents. While the influence of friends can be both beneficial and problematic, parents sometimes respond in ways that create more problems than they solve.
Like Joe’s mother, parents sometimes imagine that there is a “bad” friend (or friends). Most peer influence is not that simple and is generally not characterized by one teen actively trying to persuade another to engage in risky behaviors. Rather, a teen wants to be like his peers and consequently chooses to engage in a behavior in order to fit in and identify with the group. This effect can be amplified when teens are together in a group since inhibitions tend to be lowered and the willingness to take risks increases.
By forbidding Joe to spend time with me, Joe’s mom committed a number of common errors. Her restriction made me a more alluring friend to Joe, who asserted his independence by spending even more time with me. Joe’s mother also lost the opportunity to observe us in a setting where she could more closely monitor our behavior. She didn’t have the chance to get to know me or the rest of our group.. If she had developed a relationship with us, she might have strengthened her influence over Joe and his friends.
A less extreme but common mistake that parents make is criticizing their child’s friends for how they dress, look and behave. A teen can perceive criticism of a friend as a personal attack on his or her self. As young teens strive to develop a personal identity, they typically form a transitional group identity with their peers by trying out new tastes, interests and personas within the safety of their peer group. This is why young teens who are so passionate about wanting to be their own unique, independent person, often begin the process by paradoxically trying to be exactly like their friends.
By understanding the role that peers play in the lives of their child, parents can bolster their influence. Below are a few ideas about how you can strengthen your relationship with your teen while helping them develop safe and healthy relationships with their friends.
- Create a welcoming environment in your home. Creating a comfortable place for your teen and his friends to hang out, increases the likelihood that they will spend time there. Providing a little food and some games or videos is an unobtrusive way to monitor teens.
- Help your child develop new groups of friends. Teens often have more than one friend group and you can help support more positive and healthy friendships by encouraging (but not forcing) your child to participate in positive activities that interest your teen. Effort spent on transportation, attendance at performances and athletic events, and willingness to pay fees can have a big pay off in terms of promoting positive peer interaction and new friendships.
- Avoid criticizing the friends of your teen. If you have concerns about a friend, casually raise the issue in an indirect way. Calmly ask questions about the friend such as, “What is it that you like about him or her?” or “What do you think about the way he treats other people?”, It’s more important and influential to listen your teen’s perspective than to tell yours. Assist your teen in mentally processing and working through friend issues themselves.
- If you have a negative impression of your child’s friend, look more closely at your own child. Teens tend to be friends with people who are like them. The chances are good that your child is more similar than you think. Most of us, including parents, are biased in attributing more positive characteristics to those we like and love. Consequently, we are more likely to view our own children as angels and their friends as more devious and responsible for misbehavior.
- Get to know your teen’s friends and try to develop good relationships with them. All teens benefit from having more supportive adults in their lives. By becoming more involved in the lives of your child’s friends, you may be able to offer them adult support and guidance that they are not getting elsewhere. And not surprisingly, teens sometimes have an easier time developing close and trusting relationships with adults who are not their parents. Being that person can be a valuable gift to a developing teen.
- Realize that most teens grow up to be upstanding citizens regardless of their adolescent peer group. More than 40 years later, Joe and I are still good friends as well as responsible men who have successfully raised our own teens. As things turned out, perhaps Joe’s mother didn’t need to worry so much after all.
Steve Small has been a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Extension for 30 years. He and his wife have 3 adult children, two son-in-laws, and a new granddaughter. Steve had a somewhat turbulent adolescence and his
parents couldn’t wait until he grew out of it and left home. In his spare time he likes to bike, hike, build stuff, travel and play softball.