My daughter’s middle school years were full of friendship drama and it seemed like her friend groups changed every week. When it was time for high school, I worried she’d be the only lonely kid in the high school crowd.
Social worker and certified parent coach Maria Sanders says learning who your friends are is a normal stage in teenage social development, and that we shouldn’t worry too much if our kids go through middle and the early years of high school still searching for friends. It might take some time, but roughly “by the time teens are in 10th or 11th grade,” according to Sanders, “everyone is feeling a lot more grounded in who they are and where they belong.”
My daughter found her core group of friends in her senior year of high school, and now I don’t worry as much about her feeling lonely as I did before. Instead, I have a whole new set of concerns about teens and friends.
Is my teenager spending too much time with her friends, and not enough time with family? What is she doing with these friends, anyway? Are they driving safely? Are they going to parties? Will someone try to tempt her with alcohol or drugs? Will her friends pressure her into doing something she’ll regret later? Have I taught her well enough how to say no?
Here’s what experts say about high school friendships and helping your teenager navigate peer pressure, plus a tip for how you can calm your own fears.
Remember all that drama that started in seventh grade? Sanders says in about three years, as our kids mature and become more independent from us and more comfortable with separation, all that friendship drama will calm down and our kids will want to spend more time with their peer group. By this developmental stage, some of them have their driver’s license, which means more mobility and freedom to meet up with teen friends and navigate relationships on their own.
Peer pressure, and the desire to fit in, can nudge our teens to act in ways that they might not on their own, including drug and alcohol use. Sanders notes some studies suggest “when teens are with their peers, they are much more likely to engage in risky behavior than when they are alone.”
Why is this? Sanders says that it’s important to remember that teenage brains are still developing. Teens lack self-control and engage in risky behaviors, and they still tend to act on impulse, just like when they were tweens.
Even as our teenagers become more independent from us in a variety of ways, experts agree that our teens still look to us as parents to help them navigate relationships around them. Here are some ways you can help them (and yourself).
- Set boundaries and expectations for your teen.
- Discuss possible unsafe situations and how to avoid them.
- Remind your teen (and yourself) that it’s okay to ask for help.
Is it okay for your teen to come home past midnight? Can they sleep at a friend’s house in the middle of the week? Are they allowed to drive into the city to pick up that new friend they met online?
According to Sanders, it’s important that parents clearly articulate boundaries and expectations to our teens because that helps them navigate unsafe situations.
Caroline Maguire, a family coach in Massachusetts and the author of Why Will No One Play With Me? says teens rarely respond well to parents laying out a list of rules to follow, disciplining them, or lecturing them about how they should (or should not) behave or spend their time with friends. She says teens respond better to a more constructive and cooperative approach.
Spending more unsupervised time with their peers increases the likelihood that our teens will confront risky situations, like being offered drugs or alcohol. At this stage, Sanders and Maguire agree, it’s really important to run through risky scenarios with our teenagers.
- Help your teen recognize risky behavior.
- Discuss ways to avoid risky situations and activities they’re not ready for.
- Help them brainstorm ways to stop their own risky behavior.
- Ask them how they might stop someone else from taking unnecessary risks.
- Provide ways for them to escape without negative social consequences.
As Sanders reminds us, “Some kids know that it’s not in their best interest to take drugs, but they don’t know how to get out of those situations.” By discussing possible situations ahead of time, you help your child feel more confident in knowing how to respond.
Sanders suggests saying something like this to your teen: “Some kids your age are smoking pot and you may have opportunities to smoke it. Here’s where I stand: it’s not something I’m okay with.”
One way for our teens to get out of a situation that they don’t want to be in is to encourage them to use a code word (or a certain emoji) with you. Sanders suggests telling them: “You can send me a text with a code word that lets me know you want my help in getting out of the situation.” Maguire agrees with this approach, adding that when they text you the safe word, “you will come pick them up with no questions asked.”
“The more you can become your child’s guide, helping them to look at those peer relationships and understand their choices, the better prepared they will be to handle risky situations on their own,” Maguire says.
Some parents use tracking devices like Life360 on their teen’s phone or car to add a measure of security as their teens become more independent and spend time away from home. But Sanders cautions that if you’re a parent who is very concerned about your teen’s safety and whereabouts and you’re using those devices to track them all the time, it’s important to have a conversation with your teen about that.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself if you’re feeling anxious about your teen’s growing independence:
- Why am I so concerned?
- What needs to change so I don’t feel so anxious?
- Are we, as parent and child, communicating?
- Would more communication help?
- Do I need to let go a little?
- What would happen if I let go a little?
Sanders says that figuring out the origin of your anxiety can help you take the next steps to decrease it. You’re providing your teen with tools they can use to handle stressful situations and make good choices. Trust that your efforts will pay off. (You can also try prayer. Or find a great therapist.)
When our kids were younger, it was fairly easy to find support among the parents at playgroups and classes. But now that our kids are older and more independent, it may be more challenging to find other parents for advice and support.
You might not even know the parents of your teen’s friends. Or maybe you know them, but you’re worried that if you reveal your struggles, they’ll think your kid is bad or judge you for poor parenting. You could also fall into a pit of comparison if you gather your courage to be vulnerable with someone and they respond with no empathy, or worse, they tell you everything is perfect in their house.
Even though it’s a risk to be vulnerable, Sanders says it’s still worth the effort to reach out to other parents. “As a parent, having our own community of other parents can be really helpful. Because what you’ll find, for the most part, is that you’re not alone in your worries and in your concerns, and they’re all totally legitimate.”
For More Parenting Advice
If you’re looking for support from other parents, you can join the Your Teen Parent Group on Facebook or connect with other parents of teens and tweens on our Facebook Community page.
For more ways to connect with other parents of teens, read these articles:
Watch these videos about how to reduce your anxiety.
Here are some of our most popular articles about setting boundaries with teens:
These articles provide great tips on how to communicate with your teens:
More information about Life360.