Friendships can affect many areas of children’s lives (e.g., grades, how they spend their time, what clubs they join, how they behave in public places, etc.). Youngsters who have trouble forming friendships are more likely to:
- do poorly in school
- drop out
- get involved in delinquent behavior
- have poor self-esteem
- suffer from a range of psychological problems as grown-ups
Kids of all ages need to feel that they “fit in.” As kids approach the teenage years, the need to be "one of the gang" is stronger than at any other age. Friendships become closer and more important and play a key part in allowing children and young teens to sort out who they are and where they're headed. They are likely to form small groups or cliques, each with a special identity (e.g., jocks, brains, preppies, geeks, etc.).
Many moms and dads worry that their kids’ friends will become so influential in their lives that their own roles will diminish. They worry still more that their kids' peers will encourage them to take part in harmful activities.
Peers do influence one another's attitudes and behavior. Over time, peers become more and more similar in their attitudes and behavior. For example, teens whose peers described themselves as more disruptive in school increased in disruption themselves over the school year.
The peak period for peer influence is generally from seventh to ninth grades. During this time, peers often influence taste in music, clothes or hairstyles, as well as the activities in which youngsters choose to participate. However, peers do not replace moms and dads. You are still the most important influence in your youngster's life. Young adolescents are more inclined to turn to their moms and dads than to peers for guidance in deciding what post-high-school plans to make, what career to select, and what religious and moral values to choose. This influence is greatest when the bond between parent and youngster is strong.
Here are some tips to guide parents in helping their children and young teenagers to form good friendships:
1. Get to know the moms and dads of your youngster's peers. You don't have to be best buddies, but it helps to know if other parents’ attitudes and approaches to parenting are similar to yours. You need to know if someone is around at the other house to supervise. Knowing the other mother or father makes it easier to learn what you need to know (e.g., where your youngster is going, who he's going with, what time the activity starts and ends, whether a parent will be present, how your youngster will get to and from the activity, etc.).
2. Get to know your youngster's peers. A good way to learn about your youngster's peers is to drive them to events (talking with them in the car can reveal a lot). You can also welcome your youngster's peers into your home. Make it a place with food and a comfortable atmosphere. Having your youngster's peers at your home can provide you with peace of mind and allow you to set the rules of conduct, as well as help you to gain a better understanding of what they talk about and what their concerns are.
3. Model good friendships. The example of friendship you provide has a bigger impact on your youngster's friendships than any lecture. Kids who see their moms and dads treat each other and their peers with kindness and respect have an advantage. Baking cookies for the new neighbor or offering a listening ear for an unhappy buddy sends your youngster a powerful message.
4. Monitor friendships to help your youngster avoid risky and unhealthy behavior. Children and young teens need supervision, including during the important after-school hours. Keep tabs on who your youngster's peers are and what they do when they get together. Don't be afraid to be the jerk that makes the phone call to the other house to make sure that your youngster is there. And don't be afraid to say “no.” Many moms and dads have different opinions as to whether a parent should try to stop the kid from seeing a friend that the parent dislikes. Many youngsters will rebel if told they can't spend time with certain peers. It is suggested that you let your youngster know that you disapprove of a friendship – and why you disapprove. Also, limit the amount of time and the activities that you allow with that friend.
5. Provide your youngster with some unstructured time in a safe place to hang around with peers. Activities are important, but too many piano lessons or basketball practices can lead to burnout. Allowing your youngster some unstructured time with peers in a safe place with adult supervision lets her develop important social skills. For instance, among her peers, your youngster can learn that good peers:
- respect others
- possess a sense of humor
- are helpful and confident
- are good listeners
- are enthusiastic
Spending time with others may also help your youngster to change some behaviors that make others uncomfortable around her (e.g., being too serious or unenthusiastic, critical of others or too stubborn).
6. Recognize that peer pressure can be bad or good. Most children and young adolescents are drawn to peers who are similar to them. If your youngster chooses peers who are not interested in school and who make poor grades, she may be less willing to study or complete assignments. If she chooses peers who like school and do well in their studies, however, her motivation to get good grades may be strengthened. Peers who avoid alcohol and drugs also will exert a positive influence on your youngster.
7. Talk with your youngster about peers and about making choices. It's normal for children and teens to care about what others think of them. This makes it especially important for you to talk with your youngster about resisting the pressure to disobey the rules or go against the standards and values that he has been taught. You can talk with him about how to be a good friend and about how all friendships have their ups and downs. You can also talk about the importance of making good choices when he is with peers (e.g., “If it feels wrong, it probably is”).
8. Teach your youngster how to get out of a bad situation. Talk with your youngster about dangerous or inappropriate situations that might arise and about possible ways to handle them. For example, ask your 13-year-old daughter what she would do if a guest arrived at a slumber party with a bottle of alcohol in her overnight bag. Ask your 14-year-old son how he would handle a suggestion from a friend to cut school and head for a nearby burger joint. Ideally, youngsters themselves can be the ones to say "no" to a potentially dangerous or destructive situation. But if they haven't learned this skill yet, one mother has this suggestion: “Sometimes children don't want to do what their peers want them to do. I tell my children to blame me—to tell their peers that ‘their mother says no’. This helps get them off the hook.”
9. No youngster going out for an evening should be without change for a phone call. As a last resort, this may be her lifeline. A cell phone is also appropriate (if family finances allow one and if the youngster knows how to use it responsibly).
10. Have ongoing conversation with your child about ways to avoid negative peer pressure, for example:
- "Be true to yourself. Make your own choices. Get to know who you are and what is good for you and your life."
- "Hang out with a range of different peers and listen to what is important to them. There is no ‘one way’ of doing or viewing things. Think about what is most important to you and who you are as a person! You might find that a different group of peers is more like you."
- "If someone is pressuring you to do something you don't want to, talk to someone you know will listen and help you. Keeping it inside and carrying your worries around can make things even harder to deal with."
- "Learn from your mistakes, and learn from your peers – their successes and their mistakes. This can help you make positive choices about your own fun-loving life!"
- "Think about what someone gets out of pressuring you to do something. Is this really for your benefit? Or for theirs? What do they get out of forcing you to do something you don't want to?"
- "Think about what you are getting out of the choices you are making. What would you like for yourself in the future? How are the choices you are making now going to help or hinder your ability to achieve these goals? What might you do to get there in the most successful way you can?"