Parents may wake one day to find the top three priorities of their children are friends, food, and fun, with family trailing far behind. The same children who once enjoyed being home with family now prefer to spend free time with friends. The need for parental connection is replaced by a search for acceptance and approval within a circle of friends.
Studies suggest that this type of emotional independence begins around ages 9-10 and suddenly the idea of “fitting in” becomes a top priority. Prior to this, socialization is centered around interests or activities (i.e., sports, dance) but now, socialization shifts to peer-led groups; with the leaders often perceived as “cool” or “popular.” While being a member of these friend groups can be important to children, membership may prove to be emotionally challenging and difficult for them to navigate as this is a time of significant change and transition for children.
According to Lynn Gresham, LPC, Marriage and Family Counselor, this time of development for adolescents comes with many changes in both environment and body. “Academic material increases, they may be at a new school, their bodies are changing (mentally, physically, and emotionally), and their social environment and rules also change.” Additionally, as children slowly detach from their parents and become more emotionally independent, they can be left feeling vulnerable; increasing the need to fit in and be accepted. Gresham continues, “To steady this uncertainty, adolescents look to find balance during this time and often cave to the pressures of popularity.”
While many may seek it, popularity may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Pediatrician Shelly M. Martin, M.D., FAAP, shares that social pressures may manifest themselves in multiple ways, and earlier than you may think. “Pressures of popularity can be seen in depression or anxiety, especially in younger ages, and occasionally eating disorders even in younger children.” The combination of alluring popularity and the vulnerability of new emotional independence can be a volatile mix. Dr. Martin continues, “The pressures of popularity can lead to alcohol and drug experimentation and sometimes unintended sexual interactions.”
As outlined in Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture by Dr. Laura H. Choate, there are several questions children can use to guide their thinking when it comes to identifying solid, healthy relationships. Most important to remember, good friends always look out for each other’s best interest, not to gain social status or popularity. Additionally, a true friend is loyal and kind. While the book is geared towards girls, the questions can be applied to both genders. Encourage your children to ask these questions about their own friendships:
- What five things do you want in a good friend?
- Are you getting these things from your current relationships?
- When you think about your current friends, do you have someone you can laugh with? Tell difficult things to? Who believes in you? Who you can trust? Who protects you?
After a thorough assessment of their relationships, children may quickly realize that his/her best relationships are actually with only a small handful of friends. And guess what? That may be just what he or she needs.
Friendships that are built on healthy criteria–loyalty and kindness–and rooted in common interests are more likely to withstand the tumultuous ups and downs of adolescence and beyond. ■