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Teens and their peers

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: a survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

It is important for parents to support their teen’s friendships and interactions with peers. By doing so, parents will increase the likelihood of keeping a healthy but growing relationship with their teen.

Friends are everything to teens

There is no doubt that friends are very important to teens. Teens often describe their best friends as the ones who “understand exactly how I feel.” Teen’s friendships change as they mature. From a wider circle of friends in middle school or junior high, teens move on to fewer but closer friendships as they get older.

Peers, cliques and crowds

Understanding a few terms can help parents appreciate their teen’s social world a little bit better.

The peer group is made up of a larger group of friends and acquaintances of roughly the same age who share similar experiences (e.g., other teens in a class). Teens need the peer group for support in figuring out talents and interests, social skills, independence from adults, problem solving, and emotional support.

Within the peer group, a teen might belong to a clique or smaller, closer group of friends with common interests (e.g., small group of friends who hang out together regularly on weekends). Parents might think of cliques negatively, but they can be the place where teens go to check out what to say or do, who to hang out with, or what to wear. Cliques provide even more emotional and social support for the teen than the larger group of peers.

A third group in teens’ social world are crowds. Crowds are made up of teens with specific interests and abilities. Parents may want to think about the kinds of crowds that existed when they were growing up (e.g., “brains” for those with academic success). Teens today might have similar crowds but with different names. Today’s crowds are also determined by current pop culture and will vary according to groups within the school population. A teen might be in a clique of close friends, but still belong to one or more crowds because of interests and abilities. Crowds are not always self-defined; sometimes peers decide which crowd a teen belongs to.

Teens may go to all three groups — peers, cliques, and crowds — to meet different needs.

What parents can do

As children approach the teen years — teens will want to spend more time with peers. Sometimes parents might feel hurt at the change in their relationship with their child who once chose to spend time with them. Despite this, some of the ways parents can be supportive include:

  • Knowing your teen’s friends. If you show a genuine and non-intrusive interest, teens are less likely to see their parents and friends as completely separate from each other.
  • Forming your opinions only after getting to know your teen’s friends. Don’t rush to a judgment based only on first impressions of dress, appearance, or rumors about the friend’s behavior.
  • Making your home a welcoming place for your teen and their friends. That might include having a gathering spot that’s private but still allows you to keep track of what’s going on. Having plenty of snacks and drinks on hand will help too.
  • Offering to include friends as part of family gatherings. Teens may not be excited about being a part of family events they once enjoyed. Having a friend along will make it more fun for your teen and will also give you the chance to get to know their friends.

For younger teens, you might offer to drive them and their friends.

Concerned about your teen’s choice of friends?

Sometimes parents may be concerned about the reputation of their teen’s friends or choices the friends have made. Teens seek out those with similar interests and those who do things they think they might want to do. If you are concerned, parents need to keep a close eye on their teen’s activities. Tips for parents include:

  • Don’t encourage friendships you don’t approve of. But also don’t openly criticize your teen’s friends. Your teen will resent this.
  • Be clear about the family’s bottom line, those non-negotiable rules that involve your teen’s health and safety. Reserve rules for those issues most important to you and your family.
  • Keep working on the relationship with your teen. As your child grows up, your relationship will need to change. Be open to that and look forward to opportunities to grow together.

Related Resources

The Development Relationships FrameworkSearch Institute — Developmental relationships are close connections through which young people discover who they are, cultivate abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to engage with and contribute to the world around them. Search Institute has identified five elements, expressed in 20 specific actions, that make relationships powerful in young people’s lives.

Talking with Teens about Peer RelationshipsU.S. Department of Health and Human Services — Learn how you can make a difference talking to teens about their peer relationships.

Colleen Gengler, retired Extension educator — Family Relations

2011. Reviewed May 2017 by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and professor — Department of Family Social Science

Reviewed in 2018

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