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

Why Teen Friendships Are So Important

April 27, 1998

As parents we often wonder if our teens are being wise when they spend so much time with their friends. We wonder if our teen is overdoing the social part of life at the expense of school work, reading and other productive activities.

Stories in the media and other parents may cite negative peer influence as the root cause of teen problems such as drugs and alcohol, premarital sex and juvenile crime. However, there is also an untold story. Peer relationships are an important, very powerful part of a young person's moral and social development. Why?

- Teens need to belong. The need to belong is basic for security and well-being. Teens are measuring their worth by how well they fit in and how acceptable they are to each other. The need to belong is a basic human need, no matter what the age. Teens, however, are especially sensitive to this need.

- Learning social skills is important. To belong, teens have to learn to listen and express themselves effectively and appropriately. They learn verbal and nonverbal skills in belonging to a group or in maintaining a one-to-one relationship. Teens can be hard on one another and point out each other's social flaws and faux paux's.

- The give-and-take of relationships is learned. This means learning about basic rules and obligations among equals. This is different from the parent/child relationship. These skills include the ability to resolve conflict, negotiate, achieve fairness, and repair relationships after a problem. Good relationships depend on trust, truth and honesty.

- They go out of their way for others. Peer relationships offer opportunities to forget about self interests and do nice things for others. Young people see how relationships are established and maintained by meeting other's needs. Young people come to understand that relationships depend on giving and receiving emotional support from time to time.

- They can share confidences and feelings. Young people learn to share their lives and be open about their dilemmas. This is a wonderful skill to have in coping with life and drawing ideas, resources and support when things are not right. They also find pleasure in sharing experiences and doing things with others.

- Teens learn to reinforce each other's goals, values and talents. If teens have friends of high quality and standards, they will be a positive influence on each other. They will be reinforcing the same values and standards taught in their family. They aren't tearing each other down, but they’re enjoying being with young people like themselves.

- Same sex and opposite sex friendships prepare teens for courtship and marriage someday. Research has shown that same sex, preteen friendships are a positive factor in whether a young teen enjoys same sex and opposite sex friendships between 14 and 17. The quality of same sex and cross-sex friendships during those years forecast successful romantic relationships and courtship experiences between 18 and 23.

However, having dating experiences before age 16 isn’t wise. Research has shown that early dating before age 16 leads to sexual activity. Teens who wait until age 16 or after have a lot more control, have clearer values and make better decisions about their lives. Group activities before age 16 are fine but the early boy/girl pairings need to be delayed until their maturity and judgment catch up to their hormones.

What about negative peer influence? The peak ages for peer conformity are from 11 to 14, especially for the areas of peer approved misconduct. After that, the amount of peer influence during adolescence decreases.

Among older teens, peer influence has more to do with style, clothes, grooming, and music. Their basic goals, values and aspirations are still under the basic influence of their parents. However when it comes to delinquency, sexual activity and alcohol or drug use, both friends and parents play important roles.

Friendships can have their problems. Teens also learn to deal with the downside of relationships: rejection, breakups, betrayal and cruelty. In a way, this is good also. It prepares them for real life someday. In the process of sorting through and changing friends, they develop a sense of judgment and refine their preferences about who they really want as friends.

What can parents do to help their teens with their relationships? How teens handle their friendships is their turf. The best you can hope for is that they choose friends of high quality and standards. However there are a few things parents can do.

1. Set the stage by helping teens feel comfortable in bringing their friends to your home. Encourage participation in extracurricular and church activities. Get to know their friends and help them feel comfortable around you.

2. Stand on the sidelines and watch. Be there as an emotional support and consultant when they need you. If your son for daughter will let you, help your teen diagnosis and repair a problem relationship - or let one go.

3. Get involved in relationships that are destructive. Be direct and intervene when you have to. Teens are still young and lack judgment in some matters. Your actions may be occasionally necessary to help a son or daughter from making major mistakes.

Peer relationships can be a wonderful bonus to parents. It compliments their work in raising mature, caring human beings who understand how to establish and nourish relationships. All that hanging out time isn't such a bad thing.