The Distant Teenager: Friends over Family


Many parents are distraught to find that their teenage child no longer loves snuggling, playing board games with their family, or is begging for a story. Instead, their mommy and daddy adoring child has been replaced with an aloof, standoffish adolescent who is obsessed with fitting in. During adolescence young people are going through many transitions- physically, hormonally, cognitively— but some of the most important transitions happen within friendships and peer groups. Many parents are aware of the peer-heavy focus; it is evident in the increase of extracurricular activities like sports, social, and religious group involvement and the obsession with fitting in.

While parents concede they consider the social involvement to be of value, they also report feeling frustrated at the level of importance their teens place on activities with peers. Their child would rather go to a friend’s house than do homework or spend time with family- and often parents feel their son or daughter’s priorities are misplaced. However, it is easy to overlook the role that social acceptance plays; to a 17 year old, friends are everything.

A teen’s peer group, and the acceptance that they find within it, helps the teen define themselves and feel affirmed. Their clique helps them establish their identity and to exert themselves as an individual; while, ironically, the teen often dresses, talks, and behaves just like their friend group, they are practicing differentiating from their family of origin. Having friends who are like them acts as a support system to try “being different,” and test different values; they get to be unique from their families while being supported by their friends.

The social transition that takes place means that teens begin to gravitate towards their friends and away from their families. During childhood and the elementary years, family support is everything to a child; however, as adolescence hits the majority of the teen’s energy is put towards his or her friendships and romantic relationships. While this shift in the teen’s priorities and personal preferences often is the source of a lot of conflict between parent and child, the shift to want friends over family is still a normal one.

Parents need to be encouraged to remember several things during these sometimes tumultuous years:

  1. Though teens may appear angry, irritated, or have an “attitude”, adolescents still very much need their parents’ attention and supervision.

  2. Teens who receive more parental monitoring report both higher academic success and less delinquent behavior.

  3. Teens who have a shared trust and values with their parents develop higher levels of empathy and altruism towards others.

  4. The deep desire for social relationships is healthy and normal, as is conforming to their social circle/clique.

  5. While peers influence things like music choice, clothing, and activities, parents hold the influence in areas of religion, politics, education and morality.

What can you as a parent do to stay connected with your distant teen?

  1. Help your child differentiate between healthy and unhealthy friendships.

  2. Set clear boundaries and expectations for your teen- these must be consistently enforced and reasonable. (Ex: Your grades need to be held at a 3.0 in order to keep your 10pm curfew; if you get anything lower, your curfew is going to be 8pm until it is raised.)

  3. Pay attention to your teen’s comings and goings.

  4. Remember that your teenager feels safer knowing you are in charge- that means rules communicate love and care. Though they may resist structure, it ultimately means the parent cares and pays attention to them.

  5. Be available to talk.

  6. Let your teen know they matter to you— and show them they matter.

(Cited: King and Furrow, 2004; Bailiwick, King, Reimer, 2005; Smetana, Yau and Hanson, 1991)

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