KIDS
April 1, 2013

Adolescence As a Social Jungle

It can be tough for teens to be social without giving in to peer pressure. Parents can actually help.

Friends become even more important during adolescence when teens turn away from parents and toward a community of their peers. Not all teenagers find it easy to develop and maintain the friendships that make a social life possible, however.

If you have been having concerns about your teenager's social life and his or her relationships with peers, a new study suggests you are wise to worry. It finds that teens who struggle more socially also have more problems as they age.

But the good news is that social interaction is, in large part, a skill that can be taught. And when parents can provide guidance to their teens and help them learn ways to strike a balance socially, kids have a leg up on life, not just the high school social scene.

It’s tempting to tell kids to ignore everything their friends are doing and be true to themselves; but since this probably isn’t going to happen, showing them how to balance autonomy with their need to fit in is probably a better way.

The study followed a group of kids for ten years, from age 13 to 23. At the start of the study, when the participants were in grades 7 or 8, the kids, a group of their peers, and their parents answered questions designed to get a picture of how well they were doing socially.

Researchers were interested in how they interacted with their friends, the quality of their relationships, how “popular” they were, whether they felt in control of their social lives and actions, and how susceptible they were to peer influence.

Ten years later, they answered similar sets of questions to determine how they interacted in their social relationships as adults and observed along with their romantic partners during a discussion about a particular relationship conflict. The patterns of the teen years were largely still present:

  • People who had had a harder time connecting with their peers as teens had a harder time developing tight friendships in young adulthood. They were also less good at managing conflict in their romantic relationships.
  • Those who were more influenced by their peers as teens were more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol as adults.
  • Teens who were more connected to their friends, and were rated as more pleasant to be around, more humorous, and more empathetic fared better in their adult relationships.
  • Those who were more autonomous or better able to think for themselves had fewer alcohol and drug-related problems as adults.
But there were a few surprises.

Teens who were rated as more desirable to be around by their peers were also more likely to have problems with alcohol as adults. The authors of the study explain that this is because not all children are able to successfully navigate the tension between being socially part of the crowd while remaining able to stand up to peer pressure to drink or do drugs at the same time.

This is not easy. "…[E]stablishing social competence in adolescence and early adulthood is not a straightforward process, but involves negotiating challenging and at times conflicting goals between peer acceptance and autonomy with regard to negative peer influences,” said study author Joseph P. Allen in a statement.

Parents can help. Talk to your kids about how to walk that line between being part of a social circle and remaining independent of peer pressure.

“Teaching teens how to stand up for themselves in ways that preserve and deepen relationships — to become their own persons while still connecting to others — is a core task of social development that parents, teachers, and others can all work to promote,” adds Allen.

It’s tempting to tell kids to ignore everything their friends are doing and be true to themselves; but since this probably isn’t going to happen, showing them how to balance autonomy with their need to fit in is probably a better way.

“There is a positive pathway through the peer jungle of early adolescence,” says Allen, “but it is a tricky one for many teens to find and traverse.” That’s why they need a little extra direction from you.

The study was carried out by a team at the University of Virginia and published in the journal, Child Development.

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