Peer Relationships

PEER into the Summer…
So, what’s so special about friends?

Peers/friends have been, and continue to be, the cornerstone of adolescence. They teach about relationships, and prepare adolescents for the adult relationships that are to come. They are the world in which our teens live, and bring the extremes of joy and angst to their days. They are … Everything, if you’re a teenager!
So, who were your friends in high school? Are they still your friends? Why did you choose the friends you did? What was unique about your group of friends back then? Can you recall how important the feeling of belonging to your group of peers was for you at that time in your life? Few people forget their high school peers, whether this reflection is a happy one or not. “Everyone needs to belong – to be with and feel connected to others who share attitudes, interests and circumstances that resemble their own.” Reflecting on our times as a teenager can give a fresh perspective on our own teen’s world of friends/peers today. Being popular and having friends was a critical component of our happiness/unhappiness during high school, and remains so for adolescents today. However, times have changed ….
Our teens face new challenges with their peer group that we did not encounter as teens. In today’s society, teenagers have the ability to be in contact with their peer group any time of the day or night! Cell phones give teens direct access to each other. This is distinctly different from even a decade ago. Teens with unlimited ability to text message or talk to each other literally anytime, create a whole new subculture within the context of relationships of peers and parents. This accessibility also extends to the ways teenagers can communicate with each other via the Internet such as instant messengers (MSN), and social networks (Nexopia, Facebook). Technology has radically changed the power of our teens’ peer groups, because they now have the ability to be in continual contact with their friends, with or without the knowledge or involvement of their parents!
In his popular book “Hold on to Your Kids – Why Parents Matter”, Dr. Gordon Neufeld discusses a phenomena he calls “peer orientation”. He states “the chief and most damaging impact” on our role as parents in the lives of our teens today is “the increasing bond of our children with their peers.” “For the first time in history young people are turning for direction and instruction not to mothers, fathers, teachers and other responsible adults, but to people whom nature never intended to place in a parenting role – their own peers!” The problem is not that teenagers have friends their own age or that they form connections with other teens – these relationships are expected and serve a healthy purpose. The problem is that, in society today, they are turning to their peers instead of their parents for guidance. Historically, adolescents have aligned with their peers and away from their parents. The importance of being accepted by a group of friends cannot be overstated. The literature calls this movement towards peers a ‘sign of maturity’ and a ‘natural process’. (R. Barnett) However, our teens still need parents for support and direction during this time. Though, as parents, we may no longer be in their inner circle, teenagers still look to, and value us in their lives, just in a new way. “Overall the strategies for supporting healthy adolescent development require continual balancing between holding on and letting go, offering flexibility while maintaining limits…” (Harvard Research project) Because of their powerful connection with friends today, it is even more important for parents to stay connected with their teen’s day-to-day life.
Friendship is about belonging. As such, the influence peers have on our teens can be positive or negative. The research shows that teens tend to make positive choices in their peer group when they have a strong sense of themselves (self-esteem). The literature also finds that generally, friends are often more accepting of the feelings, thoughts and actions of our teens, during their quest to find their own identity. On the other hand, teens who feel isolated by their peers or family are more likely to engage in behaviors that fit in with a particular group, just in order to belong. Sometimes they may change the way they dress, their friends, or their personal values, depending on the people they hang around with. Some teens will even risk being grounded, losing their parents’ trust or even breaking the law, just to try and fit in. The need to have a group of friends they can identify with and who accept them is a driving force for adolescents! Researchers found that if teens associated with people involved with alcohol, drugs, or other harmful behaviors, likely that teen was doing the same thing. Parents cannot be complacent about their teen’s choice of friends. The “Not my Kid!” mindset can cause problems for parents, as they may fail to anticipate or recognize the warning signs or changes in their teen.

A Peer Review for Parents ….
During the summer months, the relationship between teens and their friends can reach new heights! Teens typically have much more free, unsupervised time to spend with their friends. The literature on adolescence maintains the importance of parents recognizing this. Keeping teens involved in positive summer activities is a key component to a successful summer for families. The following ideas taken from the research literature give parents some guidelines/suggestions for their role with their teen’s friends/peer group – both for summer and throughout the year.

•  Keep in touch with your teen and their activities - monitoring teen behavior, according to the literature, is a crucial way of minimizing any troubles they may confront. One way, widely discussed in the literature on teens, is to supervise their use of technology. Pay attention to their cell phone use. Sit down at the computer and talk with your teen about who is on their Facebook. Do you know if your teen has a Nexopia site? Do you know who contacts them through this site and how much time they spend there? These are great ways to find out who your teen is in touch with – who their friends are.

•  When parents monitor their teen’s activities, it provides them with the opportunity to set consequences and boundaries. By negotiating these ahead of time with their teen, if poor choices are made, everyone knows what the outcome will be. Help your teen think about his/her actions beforehand, and discuss the immediate and long-term consequences of risky behavior choices.

•  Show a genuine interest in your teen’s friends – spend time getting to know them. If you have concerns about your teen’s choice of peer group/friends, getting to know them becomes even more important.
• Never criticize your teen’s friends! Check whether your concerns about their friends are real and legitimate. If they are, talk to your teenager about behavior and choices – not about their friends. Find out why these friends are important to them. Share your concerns and feelings with your teen.

• Last and definitely not least, be sure to make extra time for your teen during the summer months. Have fun with them - holiday together, make regular times for each other throughout the summer months (even if everyone is working). Look at summer as an opportunity to spend time together building a stronger relationship with your teen. You won’t regret it!

“Although the task of adolescence has sometimes been described as “separating” from parents, it is more widely seen now as adults and teens working together 
to negotiate a change in their relationship that allows a balance 
of independence and ongoing connection.” 
(Dr. R. Simpson)