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What Friendship Means to Your Teen

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Teenage boy using a digital tablet with his brother and his family in the background
ONOKY - Eric Audras/Getty Images

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.

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