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Who's Important to Teens?

Who’s Important to Teens?

 

          Do teens care more about their friends than their parents? Though parents may sometimes feel they’ve been replaced by their child’s friends, research shows that isn’t the case.

         “It’s not that peers are more important than parents, but rather that peers become more important than they previously were,” says Stephen Small, human development and family relations specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and UW-Madison.  “Some of the socialization functions served by parents are increasingly shifted to peers during the teen years,” says Small. “This may leave parents feeling alienated from—and even rejected by—their adolescent children.”  “But,” he adds, “it is essential for parents to know that, while the importance of peers does increase during adolescence, parents still remain a primary and vital influence.”

         Research suggests that parents should exercise caution when expressing disapproval or providing unwanted feedback about their child’s friends. Teenagers usually choose friends who are like themselves, so in spite of a parent’s best intentions, teens may interpret criticism of their friends as personal criticism.

         While it is true that many forms of deviant behavior are influenced by and take place in the presence of peers, the stereotype that peer pressure causes problem behaviors in otherwise innocent youth is not supported by research. Instead, the old adage “Birds of a feather flock together” still applies–teens tend to gravitate toward friends whose interest and involvement in problem behaviors parallels their own. Because of a strong desire to fit in with their friends, teens often behave in ways that they believe will lead to greater peer acceptance rather than responding to actual pressure from peers to engage in specific behaviors.

          On the flip side, peers can provide strong positive influence during the teen years.  Friends can promote good academic performance, encourage healthy extracurricular activities and deter teens from risky behaviors. In addition, friends are a much-needed source of social support during adolescence and can serve as a protective factor against teen depression and suicide.

          Parental opportunities to influence their child’s friendship choices occur before, as well as throughout, adolescence.  Parents can influence their children’s friendship choices by where they choose to live, the schools they choose for their children to attend, their parenting practices and the values they instill in their children from the earliest stages of life. All these parental choices can have a powerful and lasting (although indirect) influence on the friends that their children choose during the adolescent years.


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