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Supporting Healthy Peer Relationships in the Teen Years

Ask the Experts
by Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW

Q:  There is so much relationship conflict with teens.  As a parent, what can be done to support healthy peer relationships?

A: The kind of peer relationships your child has can have a huge influence on their motivation, their success, what’s important to them and the choices they make.  Because of this, it is wise to help your son or daughter know what a healthy support network looks like and how to utilize it appropriately.

Developing healthy peer relationships involves several key components:  Ability to take stock of relationships, redirecting or breaking off a relationship when they are treated poorly, knowing how and when to ask for support in a way that you can be heard, and knowing when to strategically disengage from relationships.

First of all, you can help your kids make evaluations about their relationships.  By this, I don’t mean the goal is for you to “fix” their relationships or mandate who they can or can’t be friends with.  But you can ask questions about what traits a relationship brings out in them.

  • What do they experience in the relationship?
  • Is it mutually satisfying or one-sided?
  • Are their benefits to the relationship or is it habitual?

The goal is to help your son or daughter to be aware of their own response to the relationship, as well as understand their own role in how satisfying their relationship is.

If there is a problem that they identify, help them to understand that relationships are about work rather than about passivity.  Use the language of choice with kids.  Help them to explore new behaviors or different approaches to a difficulty.  Helping them to problem solve is reasonable given how complex relationships can be in adolescence.

Very often in therapy, I have girls who are extremely frustrated in friendships, but don’t want to talk about it with their friend b/c they don’t want to upset them or it is too 
uncomfortable.  I can understand their reluctance.  But I also remind them that, although they may not be talking about it, their frustration is probably playing out in the relationship.  Through distancing, through “snipes” that are thinly disguised through humor, by talking behind friends back, or by distancing in the relationship.

It so important to teach kids to have a voice.  And to help them learn that their relationship are strong enough to handle talking about difficult things, when it is done in a respectful way.  In fact, among adolescent girls, in particular, I see friendships most often sabotaged by not talking about something rather than addressing an issue.  It’s when something is avoided that usually results in trouble:  A person starts withdrawing from a relationship or an issue blows up into something bigger down the line.

While I think it is important to give kids the message that relationships can be difficult and good relationships take work, I think it is also important that they know it is okay to end a friendship.    If your son or daughter is involved with a friend that doesn’t make them feel good about themselves, and they can’t make that better, it is healthy for them to walk away.  You can stress that they try to leave the relationship in a respectful way, because kids friendships are very fluid and they may be friends again, but support the idea that they are learning what kind of relationships are good for them and what kind of relationships aren’t.

This may seem surprisingly simplistic, but many parents, give the message that you “should” try to find a way to get along and maintain the friendship.  This is well intended, often prompted by the desire to teach kids to be tolerant and turn the other cheek.  However, helping kids leave relationships that feel unsafe tells them it is not their responsibility to take care of others at the expense of their own needs.

Another way to learn to manage relationships when they aren’t going as smoothly is reminding kids that it is okay to strategically disengage.  By strategically disengaging, I mean making a conscious choice to disengage from a relationship for awhile.  This is particularly important in adolescence because relationships are especially intense, dramatic and conflicted.  Using an opportunity to disengage in a healthy way helps kids to take inventory about what they want to do about a relationship problem, whether big or small.  Kids constant accessibility to each other in this high-tech era make it all the more important for kids to learn to step out of relationship drama in order to get their bearings and to find their own voice.

Developing good peer relationships and promoting independence also means teaching kids that it is okay, even desirable, to ask for help.  Reinforce for them that depending on others not only helps to meet their own needs, but it contributes to more intimate and trusting relationships because their friends can help them in a way that feels meaningful or relevant.  It also helps to alleviate the drive for perfectionism, recognizing that we all have weaknesses, flaws and vulnerabilities, yet we are still liked and respected by others.

You can model seeking support in your own life as well, by giving them the opportunity to observe how you use family and friends to help ease the stress of day-to-day demands.  If you just talk about the importance of counting on others, but have to do everything yourself or are reluctant to ask help, your kids will tune in more to what your behavior is saying rather than what you are giving lip service to.

Parents need to have a good, strong parent support network.  In addition to the opportunity it offers to model

  • how to manage healthy relationships
  • how to give and ask for support,
  • how to resolve conflict and reconcile,
  • how to enjoy down time and be positively engaged with others

A support network is also critical for the enormous job at hand. Parent networks help us share information, set limits appropriately, ensure supervision, get grounded feedback about how we’re doing, and access support.  Being involved with other parents – with groups like the mothers’ club or volunteer opportunities that parallel your kids’ lives – serves both you and your kids very well.

Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW, is a Clinical Therapist who works with children, adolescents and adults. She can be reached at 313.408.2180. Garvey is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals. 

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