Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Teen Friendships: A Laboratory of Morality

December 3, 2001

Where would children be without their friends? How important they are!

The unhappiest I've seen my own children has been during those temporary times when they perceived themselves as friendless. No matter what other good things are happening to them, the lack of friends hurts to the core. As parents our consistent love and concern matter. However, during the teen-age years, the opinions of peers seem to matter more.

Vital preparation for life. One of the main developmental tasks during the teen-age years is the making and keeping of friends. It is a vital preparation for having successful adult relationships. Even dating relationships, if kept in proper focus, are experiments in opposite sex friendships.

A teen's choice of friends also represent a litmus test of their values and standards. It gives a feeling of peace when children choose friends with high values and standards. The quality of their friendships exerts a positive influence in their lives. Friends reinforce each other in their goals, talents and activities. It is special when they help each other out. When the values between good friends start to differ, then friendships change or fade. You can judge your own child’s values by the values of his or her best friends.

Friends bring pleasure. From an adult perspective, raising teen-agers may be a lot of hassle - incessant phone calls, guests in the home, waiting up, noise, chauffeuring, and pushing at limits. It’s also a lot of fun - a lot of teen-age energy, exuberance, excitement, giggling, laughter and special occasions: Friends make their world enjoyable and fun - and bring pleasure to parents as well.

It is special when friends go out of their way for our children - birthdays, graduations, dances, ball games, homecomings, decorated rooms, thoughtful surprises, doing things together. And vice-versa.

These are great memories. A few of these friends may turn out to be lifetime friends. When our children have left home, not only do we miss them but we miss their friends.

Friends also make their world bearable. They can complain about unreasonable parents, sort out attitudes and goals, and share inner pain and worries. Friendships offer an emotional outlet for the troubles of their world.

Not all smooth sailing. That is the way it should be. Unfortunately, it isn't all smooth sailing.

- Children resist being uprooted from their friends. Moves are hard on them. After a move, a child will be distressed and unhappy until he or she makes a new friend. Then almost magically, everything is OK. Friends make the difference.

- The world of teen-age friendships can be cruel and fickle as parents can testify. Friends can fight. A social world can be turned upside down overnight. Suddenly the tables are turned and a support system crumbles. 

Older friends graduate. A best friend moves away. A steady dating relationship breaks up and the friends who had to take a back seat to this relationship have cultivated other friendships in the meantime. A vulnerable young person may be targeted by a popular youth or a former friend for abuse and rejection.

- Teens judge each other's social value and how it might reflect on their own social standing. Being a nerd, being unaware of what is socially acceptable, is the ultimate teen-age put-down. It doesn't even take being treated like a nerd to challenge one's self-esteem. Just not being at the center of the "in-group" is enough to create doubts about one's social worth.

Daily humiliation. Some teens bear the daily humiliation of being put down or being judged as inferior, of being ignored, of being alone, of feeling lonely and of being left out. To be friendless as a teenager is to go through great emotional pain. They seek out those who accept and value them as they are.

Social rejection combined with struggles in a competitive school environment push some young people into a defensive identification with others who feel the same way they do. They cry out for respect and dignity - someplace to go, a friend to be with, a friend to talk to, a friend who likes them, a friend who feels they are special. They will find this acceptance where they can.

Looking out for the underdog. It is asking a lot, but if teens would reach out to shy youth, recognize them, draw them out, and include them, they could accomplish more doing this than almost any other social cause they could undertake.

Even if teens can't be a friend to everyone, they don't need to be a part of the problem. They don't need to gossip, scorn, isolate, tear down or be intentionally cruel to a fellow classmate. No labeling, no name calling. No bullying. No humiliation. No building oneself up at another's expense. Some teens might be spared some of the trauma, loneliness and insecurity of those socially awkward and self-conscious years if their peers treated them with respect and dignity.

Is it asking too much for teens - busy trying to find themselves and define their own worth - to be aware of the needs of those around them? If they can do this, they will have better friendships and will have taken big steps toward being a mature, caring adult. Teen relationships are a laboratory of morality.