Almost a year ago now, we relocated our family about 90 miles from our 15 year home for a job change. It was a challenging experience at best, but really traumatic for our two teenagers at the time, ages 16 and 13. While we worked hard to create a gradual transition, their reaction and adjustment to the move ended up being all about friends.
We are starting to feel a little better about the move now as our daughter, now a high school senior, is starting to feel like her new high school is HER school and her new friends HER friends.
And our now 14 year old son has a larger and better circle of friends than he had in our former community.
So, what is it about friends that is so critical to most teenagers? Why do children move from the safety and security of home and family in their younger years into a world that so centers around their friends and peer groups? And what should dads know about and do about this new change in their children's lives?
Changing Patterns. As our youth mature, their friendship patterns change. Think about it. Our preadolescent children tend to have friendship activities that focus on their neighborhood, activities, school classes and sports teammates. It is usually not a matter of much choice when being with friends. They tend to pal around with the people who are proximate. But teenagers, as they mature into adults, tend to be more selective of their friends. Friendships for teens are based more on status, common interests, values and personalities.
This is an important change for parents to acknowledge. Parents are less likely to know through normal associations with whom their teens are friends. Much of what you may know about their friends is second hand information through your teen or their siblings.
Teens' Friends Become Part of their Baseline. During their childhood years, your children tend to look to mom, dad and siblings for their emotional needs.
As the teenager years unfold, and the teen becomes more independent from parents, the close emotional relationships tend to move more toward their peers. Our teens will largely find their needs for understanding, support and guidance coming more from friends than from family. It is a natural part of growing up, but can be a little disconcerting for a father or mother.
Friends Define Social Status. I always have remembered the line from Ferris Buehler's Day Off where the school secretary says that the "jocks, motorheads, stoners, sluts, bloods, dweebs, and brains all think that Ferris is a righteous dude." Every high school and junior high school has its groups or cliques. Our teens usually will find themselves in one of these groups, largely based on the friends they choose. Our daughter noticed this right away in her first high school because there was a "cowboy hall" where the kids with jeans, boots and big buckles all hung out. So they will tend to affiliate with the groups where they have friends and feel comfortable.
Teen Friendships Move From Same Gender to Other Gender. For most children, their early friendships are mostly same gender. Best friends are almost always two boys or two girls.
But as teens mature and the hormones take over, friendships begin to shift into mixed groups of boys and girls, and later to some level of pairing off. Early teen friendship groups help teens explore their new feelings and get to a comfort level with the opposite sex. This again is a very natural part of the maturing process and if handled properly should not be feared by dads.
Teens' Social Needs Differ. Any parent who has had more than one teenager recognizes that their social development comes in different stages and cycles. One of our daughters was kind of a homebody growing up; the other we could scarcely keep home long enough to wash her clothes. Both styles were good, and met their different social needs. Moms and dads will often have a tendency to try to push children into a stage for which they many not be prepared.
But unless your teen has a pathological fear of friendships, you should let them move at their own speed into closer friendships and relationships.
I have observed over the years with our children's friends' parents a variety of approaches to interacting with their teens' friends. Some mothers I have observed try to be their teens' best friends-dressing like them, acting like them and spending time with them. That can be a dangerous approach. After all, teens will have a variety of friends, but only one mother (or one father). The parent's role should include:
Knowing your children's friends and their parents whenever possible. While teens are working on independence, that maturation is a process, not an event. One of the things that helps that process is your acquaintance with their friends. Try to meet their friends, and their friends' parents. Find opportunities, even if just for a few minutes, to chat with them, individually or in the group. Putting names to faces helps with future conversations with your teen.
Making your home a welcome place for teens to hang out. We have always tried to have our home be a place where our teens and their friends can be together safely and with a little supervision. For our sons that has meant having good food and some games (foosball, table tennis, etc.) For our daughters it has meant a television with a few "chick flick" videos or DVD's and craft supplies. Making your home an inviting forum and welcoming your teen's friends is a positive in their lives.
Drawing the line if your teen is in a dangerous friendship that puts him or her at risk. Be aware of how your teen reacts to his or her friends. Watch for abusive behavior or evidences of any kind of abuse (mental, physical, emotional or sexual). If you feel your teen is at risk, don't hesitate to jump in and help them find solutions that maintain their self-respect.
Involving friends in family activities. Occasionally invite your teen's friend(s) along for a family activity. Taking friends hiking, fishing, on a picnic or to a show can help strengthen relationships and help you feel comfortable with their friends.
Setting reasonable restrictions on time spent with friends. Many teens will push the envelope on time spent with friends. Discuss curfews with your teens and stick to them. If they are late, there needs to be a consequence. One natural consequence of a curfew violation is a short grounding.
Enforcing family rules. Each family has its own rules and responsibilities. For example, teens should not be out with friends if chores aren't done. And if there are younger children, they are watching how you deal with a teen's lack of responsibility and will expect the same treatment. Be consistent and firm.
Keeping lines of communication open. Our About Teen Parenting Guide Denise Witmer talks often about "door openers and door slammers" in parent-teen communication. Make sure you are opening doors by using open ended questions and active listening. Avoid rushing to conclusion or treating your teen disrespectfully. As you engage in conversation about their friends and relationships, be friendly and casual when possible.
Sharing your values about sex and relationships. Parents have a duty to share their values with their children, including teens. While teens don't marry everyone they date, they will likely marry or have an intimate relationship with someone they date. So talk about your values and why they are important to you. Remind them about the dangers of early sexual relationships, both physical and emotional.
All in all, the teenage years can be fun and productive for fathers. Your involvement in your teen's life will to a large extent determine their future success. And understanding teen friendships and knowing what to expect as your teens become more independent and interdependent with their friends is an important part of the parenting process.