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“Understanding Adolescent Behavior” continued...

The lure of spending more time with friends is compelling during adolescence. Having friends helps an adolescent in a number of important ways. First, it helps him to experience more independence. Friendships provide the setting necessary for him to practice social skills and discover himself apart from his parents. Second, friends contribute to helping him shape his personal identity. Friends do not mold him, rather they are a forum in which he can try out his emerging values and ideas with less fear
of being criticized or ridiculed. Third, as he becomes less emotionally dependent on his parents, he will rely on the emotional support of friends. Since they are going through the same things he is they can understand his feelings and relate to his needs. For this reason he feels comfortable turning to his friends for support and advice. It is important to point out that adolescents become “less emotionally dependent” not totally removed from their parents’ emotional support. Friends, however, can become the only source of support when an adolescent has been rejected by his parents. Lastly, friendships provide a setting for learning about intimacy. Unfortunately many teens equate intimacy with sex and need parental guidance in understanding the difference. Intimacy is a close relationship based upon mutual caring and trust between people. It is through having contact with his peers that a teenager socializes and develops skills for intimacy.

In addition to having friends, teens are also attracted to larger circles of peers known as peer groups or “crowds.” Different peer groups can co-exist in a single school within the same age level. Each group will create its own values and rules of conduct, which dictate choices in clothing styles, recreational activities, hairstyles, music, and attitudes toward school, parents and other groups. Each group exerts pressure on individuals to conform to the group norms. Among other things, peer groups provide a means of finding friends and social activities. Teens gravitate towards friendships and peer groups based upon what they have in common. Athletic teens will connect with one another, musical teens with one another, and so forth. It is not uncommon that some teens will fit in to more than one group at a time.

Adolescents who fail to make adequate academic achievement or fail to develop mastery of a socially respected skill will find each other and become their own group. Typically these teens exhibit discipline problems and defiance toward authority, and have an increased risk of becoming substance abusers. For them a fleeting sense of mastery is being achieved through non-conformity and rebellion. Not having developed skill mastery they are carving out negative personal identities. These teens have gotten to this place because one or more of their basic psychological needs have not been adequately met and because their emotional hearts have not been kept fed.
Teens judge one another by their friends. Who a teenager hangs out with is an expression of his identity. His choice of friends is as much an emblem of who he is becoming, as are other choices he is making. His emerging identity can be seen in many facets of his teenage life. He is defining himself through his friends, the music he listens to, the style of clothing he wears, what he does with his free time, as well as how he handles school and achievement.

As parents we want our teenager to make good choices. Some of his choices may worry us. How we react to such concerns will stimulate either cooperation or rebellion. When we say to him, “ You’re hanging out with the wrong crowd,” or “I don’t like the music you listen to,” we are criticizing him, we are tearing down his personal identity. If we follow this approach we will only drive him further away from us. How we intervene is crucial. An effective way is to express concern without being judgmental and to always leave the door open for friendly communication. Sometimes we may need to work out an agreeable compromise with him. But we should only express concern when we recognize that his choices are harmful or lacking in responsibility. A good rule to follow is to ask the question: “Who is it harming?” Is having a different hairstyle harming someone? It may be a source of embarrassment, but is it really harmful? Keep in mind that a normal teenager needs to rebel in at least some areas of life in order to separate and develop independence. For this reason it is better to avoid criticizing his choices in clothing, hairstyle, music, friends, room decor, and use of free time. Fighting over these choices will create bitterness and rebellion. Allowing him to make these choices will prevent him from testing us in other more serious areas, such as experimentation with drugs or stealing. Typically, a teenager will not make poor choices in many of these areas when we have maintained a positive healthy parent-child relationship built on meeting his basic psychological needs, giving him due attention, acknowledgment, and respect. Overall, the work we put into nurturing him to be his best will be evident in his choices. If we hear ourselves making statements like, “You’re hanging out with the wrong crowd,” or “I don’t like the music you listen to,” these should be warning signs that our adolescent needs emotional nurturance.

Because peer acceptance is all-important, teens want to appear to be normal at all costs. An adolescent’s personal values as well as those of his peer group define what is normal for him. Some of those values will overlap with the values of his parents and some will not. Therefore, as parents we may have a hard time understanding some of the choices our teenager makes. Many aspects of his behavior will ascribe to the values of his peer group and not ours. Dressing, talking, and acting different from adults help him to feel independent from his parents and at the same time gain approval with his peers. We need to keep in mind that he is not rejecting us. He is trying to fit in and be accepted by his peers. This is all part of the process of growing up. Our teenager is experimenting with new values and perspectives, some of which he will accept and integrate with the ones we have given him. He is formulating a system of beliefs into a personal ideology.  This involves his assessing our values whether they conflict with those of his peers and other segments of society. As parents we can help our teenager through this stage by allowing him to make more of his own decisions. This will at times involve allowing him to learn from his mistakes. Even though he is making more of his own decisions, he will need us to be there to provide him with guidance and support.

Typically, even though most teens pay attention to the opinions of their friends, they tend to conform to the ideas of their parents when it comes to decisions about the big values in life—religion, education, and long-term plans. On the other hand, their peers exert influence concerning the smaller values—opinions about fashion, music, alcohol, drugs, and sex—things they assume parents have little understanding about. Most parents are concerned whether their children will hold on to the values they were taught growing up. And they should be concerned because values, which are those things an individual believes in, cherishes, and works for, will influence the choices their teenager makes. Teenagers hold on to most of the values their parents have taught them when they have been raised by parents who have used a balanced parenting style and have consistently satisfied their children’s basic psychological needs. Such an approach to parenting creates real respect in children—respect that is not driven out of fear but out of the recognition that something of value resides in their parents.

Moodiness is another characteristic of adolescence. In the course of a typical week there will be times when an adolescent is cheerful, relaxed, and willing to be engaged by his parent. At other times a mere word can bring an irritable response. These changes in mood seem to happen for no apparent reason. Some would assume that raging hormones are the culprits, however it is much more likely that teenage moodiness is due to stress. A common source of stress for a teenager is worrying about being normal. “I’m not growing as fast as my friends” “I’m worried that my nose is too big.” “I don’t have the same interests as other kids. Am I normal?” And there are plenty other sources of stress for him—taking on more control of his life brings not only new responsibilities, but also added stress, figuring out who he is and what his goals are, increased academic demands in school, peer problems, boyfriend-girlfriend issues, negotiating with parents for more freedom, and the frustration of being too young and too old. Add to these any family problems, such as divorce or financial difficulties, and his [continued...]