I confess. I like to watch Saturday morning cartoons with my children.
A couple of years ago we caught the tail-end of "Pepper Ann," the animated adventures of a typical 13-year-old girl. As the cartoon concludes, Pepper Ann and her mother share the hope that they will always be able to express to one another the special feelings they have for each other. Suddenly, Pepper Ann's face takes on an anxious look as she adds, "As long as you never act that way in front of my friends or within a one mile radius of my school."
Watching this animated interaction between a mother and daughter reminded me why the teenage years can be such a confusing time for parents regarding their place in their teenagers' lives. At one moment, teenagers seem to seek the same nurturing behavior from parents that they experienced when they were children; in the next moment, they are acting as if they would rather die than be seen with their parents by anyone their own age. Although teens are likely to send out many messages to their parents, sadly, the ones that are most likely to be heard are, "Stay out of my life!" — particularly regarding teenagers' associations with friends.
Although teens want and need greater autonomy as they get older, granting them increasing autonomy does not mean parents can't continue to be involved in teenagers' lives — even that part occupied by friends.
What becomes problematic for many teenagers is not whether parents are involved in their friendships, but rather how parents are involved in teens' friendships. For example, the extent that parents respect and value their teenagers' choices in selecting friends, provide their adolescents with appropriate autonomy regarding their friendships and genuinely enjoy the friends their teens have selected. These are the factors that will make the greatest difference in parents' ability to have an impact on their teenagers' friendship experiences.
During childhood, parents are a necessary part of their children's friendships. Parents of younger children provide them opportunities to meet new friends, transportation to be with friends, advice about how to be a good friend, and set rules about the who, what and where of their children's friendship interactions.
During adolescence, young people become much more independent in their ability to accomplish many of these tasks. Although teenagers become much more independent in their ability to select and interact with friends, they generally appear to like their parents' taking an interest in their friendships. They also have better friendships when parents are involved. What is important, however, is whether parents' involvement is changing in conjunction with the adolescents' own development. Teens generally don't respond well to parents continuing to control their friendships in the same way the parents did when the teens were younger. Teens also don't respond well to parents' attempts to be just "one of the gang."
Parent involvement in teen friendships works best when the parents' relationship with their teens and their teens' friends is transformed from a managing style appropriate to childhood towards a relationship that is more collegial. Parents need to express a genuine interest in the ideas and opinions of their teens and their teens' friends, and enjoy having their teens' friends around.
This does not mean that parents will automatically like every friend their teens select, and parents should be honest in sharing those concerns. But before placing a negative judgment on their teens' choice of friends, parents should first demonstrate respect for their teens' ability to make wise choices and attempt to understand, from their teenager's perspective, those qualities that make a particular friend desirable.
Our research indicates that as parents respond positively to the friends their teenagers have selected, teens are more positive about their parents being involved in those relationships; and as parents are more involved, teens report greater satisfaction with the friends they have selected.
J. Kelly McCoy is an assistant professor of marriage, family and human development in Brigham Young University's School of Family Life.