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The Social Network: Understanding Your Teen’s Friendships

Published on: April 28, 2013

Teens and social networksAll parents want their teens to have delightful friends, social smarts for coping with difficult situations, and refusal skills for handling sex, drugs and profane lyrics.

But these wonderful things don’t happen to teens just because you gave them good childhoods; they evolve out of lots of experience with challenges, mistakes and bruising social experiences.

As your child enters her late tween years, you’ll probably notice a change: As scintillating as you used to be to her when she was little, her peers are taking center stage now.

You are still welcome to drive her places, but if you could please refrain from embarrassing her with slobbery shows of parental affection, it would be greatly appreciated. Failure to comply may be met with a roll of the eyes — but that’s to be expected.

Research indicates that most parents are still the main attachments in their teens’ lives, but the relationship is so secure — such an utter mainstay — that the teens feel safe to relegate their parents to the wings.

Your child, whether you like it or not, is in the process of developing an intricate, critically important web of peer relationships that will alternately elevate him, challenge him, thrill him and devastate him. The goal is for the teen to learn from these experiences with your support —and some firmly established guardrails.   

Why social ties matter

As tweens become teens, friends become increasingly important, until  adolescents reach a stage in which making and keeping friends becomes positively central to their overall sense of happiness. Those vital friendships enhance well-being, social skills and peer acceptance.

Friends can also serve as a buffer during stressful times. Most adults know this to be true: A high-quality friendship provides intimacy, fun and validation.

But the benefits of friendship go deeper than that. Numerous studies have shown that teens are better adjusted psychologically when they have friends. Isolation and peer rejection have been associated with all manner of negative outcomes, including depression, bullying, victimization, poor academic performance and conduct disorders.

So how much do you know about how teens learn the secrets of social success — those crucial skills of empathy, assertiveness and cooperation? Take this simple quiz to find out.

True or false:

1. Adolescence should mainly be about teens separating from their parents so that they can orient to their peer group.
2. Peers provide a mostly bad influence on each other.
3. Getting good grades is job one for a tween or teen; the social stuff will follow naturally.
4. When my daughter spends hours talking over a problem with her friends, I know it’s good for her mental health.
5. Most teens would like to be friends with the popular kids.
6. Bullying is unacceptable, but most kids get over it and even grow stronger from the experience.
7. Parents whose kids never question their values are lucky.
8. It’s really best if kids never date in high school; it’s just a waste of time.

The correct answer to all eight questions is “false.”

You may be surprised to learn that new research in the social and psychological development of adolescents is turning much of the conventional wisdom on its head. (Find the full explanation of this quiz and related research in Wise-Minded Parenting: 7 Essentials for Raising Successful Tweens + Teens).

The science of  social development

During adolescence, your child’s brain undergoes a major renovation as the brain fine-tunes its neural connections, consolidating its synapses based on life experiences. These experiences help teens learn how to contribute to conversations, enhance good feelings among members of their group and regulate their emotions.

For teens, hanging out with friends is just as important as learning algebra — maybe even more so. Kids need social interactions the same way they need to engage actively in sports, extracurricular activities and academics, because those interactions strengthen the synaptic connections in the associated brain regions.

But with the good comes the bad: The brain is wired to be sensitive to all outside influences. The teen’s drive to be social means he gains interpersonal skills, yes, but it also means he is more susceptible to experimentation with alcohol and drugs. Add to the mix the teen’s quest for independence and peer-related risk-taking, and you’ve got a heady brew of all kinds of potential — for better or for worse. It makes maintaining a connection with your teen all the more crucial.

Until recently, it was assumed (possibly by you!) that teens must separate from their parents and break away to join a detached peer culture, but this notion has evolved into a more nuanced understanding of social development. Although teens will send a strong message to parents to back off, the wise-minded parent will artfully balance independence with a nurturing connection.

Accepting your child’s friends

Every parent wants their child to have strong friendships of the “right” kind, but overt manipulation of the friendship process — even for the best reasons — can backfire. Most of us make the mama- or papa-bear mistake of only wanting our children to associate with nice, wholesome, motivated, high-achieving — let’s face it, perfect — kids.

But a reality check is in order: Our child’s choice of friends is not about us. Your child is choosing friends as part of that crucial process of individuation, forming a unique identity. She will choose according to her own tastes, personality and developmental needs.

Whenever our kids pick friends we consider less than desirable, we need to ponder an essential question: What does our child see in this kid? A rigid, slightly obsessive girl will sometimes choose a wilder girlfriend, because she is exploring the terrain of adventure from a safe distance.

And the converse can also be true: A boy who operates on the margin of self-control might be drawn to a stable, down-to-earth friend who serves as a touchstone or an anchor. In both cases, the friendships, which might appear harmful or mismatched to parents, may actually fulfill a particular need in a child’s social development.

Lean on the village

Up until a few decades ago, teens had many adult family members around them to supervise and instruct them, which helped to diffuse the family tension during the tempestuous individuation process.

These days, the burden on modern families to create happy homes and interactions with teens is enormous … so bring in the troops!

Find other adults to provide mentorship for your teens. Invite family members, neighbors and friends over for dinner. Your child will benefit from the influence of a variety of admired adults — and your family will benefit from a night off from teenage sarcasm, since most tweens and teens save that stuff for their parents.

With a little creativity and calm, wise-minded parenting, you can help your child learn to handle the increasingly complex social challenges of the teen years.

Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D., and Kristen A. Russell are the authors of Wise-Minded Parenting: 7 Essentials for Raising Successful Tweens + Teens.

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