Helping teens develop positive friendships

Parents can help teens understand the values and skills that will help them form positive relationships.

According to the Search Institute, one of the external assets that support healthy teen development is positive peer influence. Positive peer influence refers to kids acting as good or positive influences on other kids. Teens who become involved with a positive friend gain opportunities to develop the other internal assets like interpersonal competence. Interpersonal competence involves having the skills to get along with and appreciate others.

Michigan State University Extension’s Building Strong Adolescents program explores ways parents can encourage their teens to form positive friendships. Teens need friends to help them learn about themselves and the uniqueness of others. A variety of friendship experiences teach teens how to build successful relationships, handle conflict and contribute to the lives of others. Teens are sure to experience many joys and challenges among friends, but parents can play an important role in understanding their positive and negative experiences.

As kids move into their teen years, friends and friendships (including dating relationships) move to a central place in teen life as a significant source of personal enjoyment and social learning.

Most teens are likely to have friends who parents either approve of or disapprove of. However, it is important to keep in mind that one way teens can truly learn how to choose and keep friends is through personal experience, which is bound to involve some mistakes. Parents should not be too hard on teens when they choose friends who have faults or when their relationships fail. Remember, every social interaction provides a new opportunity for teens to learn about different people and improve social skills.

Most parents want their teen to have good friendships, positive dating relationships and to be able to get along with others. Although realistically, parents can’t choose a teen’s friends, parents can help teens understand the values and skills that will help them form positive relationships.

Parents should teach teens that healthy relationships occur when both people:

  • Care about each other.
  • Understand and respect each other and are responsible for each other.
  • Solve problems together and communicate with honesty.
  • Share at least some of the same goals and values.

Parents should teach teens that destructive relationships involve:

  • Manipulation and jealousy.
  • Negative attitudes and dishonesty.
  • Blaming each other for their problems.

What do teens learn from friendships? The key purpose of teen friendships is to provide young people with transitional emotional attachments, which allow them to separate and attain independence from their parents. Teens attain a social place based on their friendship groups. They gain a sense of belonging when they become known as a member of the leaders, brains, jocks, musicians, nerds, etc. Friendships help teens discover themselves, trying out new behaviors and increasing self-awareness of their social strengths and weakness. Teens’ friendships teach loyalty, responsibility to others, democratic ideals, give and take, mutual goal-setting, conflict resolution, assertiveness, cooperation and conversation skills. Additionally, dating partners teach teens how to relate to the opposite sex and help prepare them with values and skills important for long term relationships and marriage.

One study found that 29 percent of a teen’s waking time was spent with friends and 23 percent of their time was spent with classmates and peers of the same age, but not necessarily friends. Less than five percent of time was spent alone with parents. Another study found that only 31 percent of children have best friends who serve as a positive peer influence. No wonder parents worry about negative peer pressure!

Teens tend to pattern their own friendships on what they learn from their parents. One of the best ways parents can influence their teen to make wise interpersonal choices is to demonstrate good relationships in their own lives.

For more information on youth development and parenting teens, visit Michigan State University Extension’s website.

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