Wine, women, and song or sex, drugs, and rock and roll, parents have worried about their teens for generations. Steering adolescents in a positive direction, motivating them to be successful, happy, and healthy and away from all sorts of potential pitfalls is more than a full-time job. Add to this the negative influences of a troubling peer group, and parents may find themselves vacillating between despair and anger. What can parents do to combat the often seductive power of a peer or group of peers with whom their teen has become enamored?
Understanding the Role of the Peer Group
To deal effectively with teens and their claims that “Cheryl is allowed to (fill in the blank),” the first step is to develop empathy and compassion as well as an understanding of what is happening with your child. The changes that adolescents experience—physical, emotional, cognitive, and psychological—are monumental. Your best comparison is toddlerhood: that developmental period during which your infant changes from being utterly helpless to being a walking, talking, self-toileting junior member of society. Remember the “terrible twos?” Adolescence is comparable: teens tolerate huge changes in every area of their lives and quite literally wake up to a changing self and world every day. Psychologically speaking, each developmental stage a person experiences presents a task or goal to be achieved. The primary task of adolescence is to separate from parents and develop an individual identity. Identity formation is a tricky business, given all the conflicted feelings teens are experiencing—some of them biologically driven and some of them more bound up in their personal history and emotions. Who am I, who do I want to be (i.e., how can I be “cool”), and how do I get there? These are the questions that are front and center for most teens.
Parents are Poisonous
Until adolescence, parents were the child’s resources for answers to such deep questions. Parents, or if parents were unavailable, other adults had all the answers. But the very nature of adolescent biological changes renders parents “poisonous.” Parents are, psychologically speaking, forbidden. They are off limits. Hormones and sexual “maturity” play a role in helping teens turn to their peers for answers, but more importantly, for intimacy. Seen as a component of normal, healthy sexual development, it may be easier to accept that peers increase in importance during this developmental phase. This doesn’t mean that parental influence drops off completely – despite what your teen may have said in anger. All your groundwork from birth until adolescence has laid a foundation that will not disappear – again, despite what your teen may claim. But it is important to recognize that a parent’s role and level of direct influence are changing and will continue to change. Fighting to keep that aspect of your relationship the same, while understandable, is likely bound to fail and make you both unhappy. In fact, one of the classic adolescent “symptoms” is black and white thinking. Teens commonly exaggerate positions and opinions, backing themselves and others into all-or-nothing corners. The more that you as a parent can hold to shades of gray, nuances, and subtleties, the more that you role model a more moderate way of thinking and communicating. This “middle ground” moves away from extreme positions and allows negotiation, compromise, and tolerance. Parents who role model this will help teens build it in their own worlds.
What To Do?
There are things you can do to lessen negative impacts, both in your relationship with your teen and to help protect your teen from the worst dangers.
- Connect with other parents. Use formal organizations to do so, such as Scouts or the PTA, or just informally via school functions or social media. Form a Facebook group for parents of teens in your school district if one doesn’t already exist. Share your values and struggles and gain support.
- Sometimes teens seek adult support and mentorship—just not from their own parents. Be available to teens, again either formally via Big Brothers Big Sisters, Scouts, or a school-based organization, or informally. Pay it forward; assuming that if you can help keep one teen focused and positive, the world is that much safer for your own teen.
- Communicating with your teen about their peers is probably the trickiest area to navigate, especially if you feel your teen has made some bad choices. While there is no good way to share negative opinions about their friends, it is important to be honest. If possible, try to maintain positive regard for the person while refusing to accept bad behaviors. You might find yourself saying things like “I’m not ok with x behavior, but that doesn’t mean I dislike Joe.”
- Set limits and communicate them clearly. Revisit them regularly, as your teen shows maturity and responsibility, but make changes incremental. Ensure consistency, too, not “on or off” like a faucet.
- Communicate the consequences of disregarding limits or breaking family rules. Make sure your teens knows in advance what will happen if they come in after curfew, or if you receive a call from the attendance office. Teens may continue to choose to engage in the unwanted behaviors, but “springing” a punishment on them after the fact is not a good strategy. The goal is to help a teen choose positive behaviors, and thinking through options and consequences can help them to do so. Research has shown that after-the-fact punishment typically does not help increase positive decision-making, but it can lead to resentment.
- Supervise and chaperone. If you are uncertain about your teen’s choice of friends, limit their outside activities and have more evenings at home with friends over.
- It is also important for parents to place reassess their own attitudes, behaviors, lifestyle, and communication style. Deal with things, small and large. Live well and live as an example. Address any health concerns of your own. Be the happy successful adult you want your child to be.
- Get professional help for your teen and your family if you need it. Do not tolerate illegal activities or violence from any family member. Use self-help groups such as AA or Alanon if appropriate. Seek counseling or discuss concerns with your pastor or medical doctor. Sometimes a few counseling sessions can be life-changing, while other times, more interventions are needed. The point is that help is available, so make use of it when necessary.