Friends and Frenemies
This is a great article by Kelly Soifer. A veteren youth pastor of over 25 years. You can check out the actual article here
“I’ll friend you on Facebook.”
As someone who danced to disco in high school, I feel a little silly saying this to my friends. But for most teenagers I know in 2011, “friending” on Facebook is part of normal conversation.
On the one hand, kids today have more “friends” through social networking than ever. Yet on the other hand, the friendship landscape for kids today is an entirely new landscape that we adults didn’t have to navigate.
The daily vocabulary of schools, families, churches and the media at large is now full of words like bullying, harassment, boundaries, friendlessness and frenemies. Let’s look at that last term; what is a “frenemy” for kids today? As described by author Hayley DiMarco,
She’s a friend and an enemy. A little bit of good and a little bit of bad. She’s nice a lot of the time, but boy, when she’s mean, she is oh-so mean.1
Though friendships have always had potential for treachery throughout the ages, the term “frenemies” reveals how friendships seem much more fragile now. As parents we must be involved in supporting and advocating for our kids as they face these new challenges. But it feels like a minefield—where do we begin? I suggest that it’s best to begin with an understanding of why friends are so central to our children—especially adolescents.
What’s the Big Deal About Friends?
The social scientist Erik Erikson delineated the developmental stages of adolescence in the 1960s.2 He is credited with coining the term “Identity Crisis,” because this stage marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. Kids go through the physical transition of puberty, the cognitive transition from concrete to abstract thinking, and they also gain a suddenly sharpened awareness of the roles society offers for later life.
The bottom line is that teens are trying to find their place in the world. This journey starts in latter elementary grades and ends… actually, we’re not sure if it ever does end! Erikson tells us that, developmentally, teenagers are deciding who they are. Their friendships play an integral part of that decision; through their friendships, they “try on” identities and explore boundaries.
Friendship Is Different For Kids Today
As adults who care about kids, we must recognize that teenagers relate to each other socially very differently than when most of us were teenagers. Teens do not tend to form large social groups like they did 20-25 years ago. As Fuller’s Chap Clark describes,
All of a sudden we started understanding the phenomenon of clustering: mid-adolescent kids went underground and developed very sophisticated social systems… [Now] they work so hard to define and defend themselves in their clusters.3
On a positive note, that means no single social group dominates the high school campus. On a less positive note, students do not look out for each other the way they used to. The world is so big and overwhelming that everyone is looking out for Number One. This new millennium version of “Social Darwinism” makes friendships more fragile and unreliable.
How Do Parents Stay Involved?
So as parents of teenagers navigating these relational waters, where do you fit? Great question. One of the most popular shows on TV right now is Glee, a show about the daily social travails of a group of high school students (all portrayed by actors in their mid to late twenties, of course!) involved in their school’s Glee Club, a show choir that is supposedly very unpopular with the majority of the student body.
Recently, I attended an interview with the creators of the show. 4 During the interview they were asked why there are so few parents on the show. (Out of 10 teen characters on the show, only two parents appear; both are widowed).
The main writer’s response was telling: “Because parents disappear in high school.”
We Don’t Want To Disappear
Somehow we need to strike a balance between remaining in touch and involved, but also respectful and aware of privacy, boundaries and developmental needs.
If we get too involved, kids will not adequately learn the skills of negotiating their social relationships. We also have to remember that struggle is part of how we all grow, so we cannot try to fix everything immediately. But their lack of experience and insight, along with a sometimes desperate need to fit in, may blind teens to some of the dangerous ways their peers treat them.
I suggest three pointers for parents who are managing this tough balancing act. In a play on the recent film Eat, Pray, Love, I’m going to suggest: Love, Pray, Eat.
We have two ears and only one mouth; therefore we should listen twice as much as we speak!5 Often, teens are external processors. Perhaps the most effective and tangible way you can love them is to become very gifted at listening.
Listening takes a variety of forms:
- Driving in the car. Some of my best conversations with students have happened in the car. Many parents share the same observation. I believe they find it less threatening to sit side-by-side as they talk about more vulnerable fears and feelings.
- Digital technology. Be their friend on Facebook, but mostly be a silent observer. Also set up expectations that you will monitor technology usage like text messaging and instant messaging until they prove themselves trustworthy.
- Late at night. Often the highs and lows of teen drama unfold after school and at night. In their fatigue kids often vent. These are critical windows for parents to be available to their kids in case they want to process.
As you pursue active listening, make sure you tame your own tongue: in other words, reserve comment. It is crucial for adults to maintain a non-anxious presence. Remain calm andinvolved. Do not let your anxiety be apparent—unload your fears elsewhere.
Finally, be the adult. As we listen, we will hear information that may cause us concern. We need to watch what we share with others. If you hear something about another young person, do not share this information with anyone other than that child’s parents. As we know, teenagers aren’t the only ones who gossip.
Get on your knees daily and entrust your children to God. The first and best thing you can do is to pray consistently: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances…” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
See this period of parenting as a time of growth for you too. This is a time for you to face your own fears and doubt.
Seek out productive, trustworthy, well-equipped faith support. Look for a good group of peers for your kids to hang out with. Do not try to orchestrate friendships, but encourage a productive friend group. Meanwhile, find Bible studies and prayer groups to gain regular support and encouragement for yourself as well.
I have always encouraged parents to make their home the social destination for their kids’ friends. Experience has shown that the greatest attractor for teens is GOOD FOOD. You don’t need to add lots of bells & whistles beyond that. Make your home a place where your kids’ friends are always welcome to grab food after school, join your family for dinner, or gather after a game for, you guessed it: food!
That said, here are some additional fun items that don’t hurt in creating hospitable environments for other kids in your home:
- rooms that don’t have to be spotless;
- ping pong or foosball tables;
- video games (play these games with your kids first to review them);
- well-stocked cabinet of board games, cards, and other group games;
- a consistent, welcoming adult presence (you!).
Keep in mind: Just because they’re at your house doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be around. They need to earn your trust before being left alone, and you should always be nearby.
Have events at your home. Many youth workers, educators and coaches need host homes for activities. But recognize that you need to assist with organizing. I have had so many parents simply say, “Let me know if you need a house for an event,” and then leave me to organize the entire deal. You can provide tangible support to your youth director by pulling some or all of the details together for him or her.
Feed your kids’ friends with love. Some kids need additional parents. Be available to parent kids whose parents should be more involved, but are not.
Heading Off Trouble At the Pass
There is much more to be said about supporting our kids in their friendships as they enter adolescence, especially if a friendship goes south into frenemy territory. Each situation is incredibly unique, so it is not easy to give much more than general guidelines here.
Much of the direction I give in this article relates to being consistently aware of the social dynamics of your child’s friendships so that you will be able to sense if there is a measurable shift that merits attention. This is important because youth are often reluctant to speak up, and may not have enough maturity to even know that something is going wrong. In regard to bullying, most school administrators would suggest that a parent make sure to inform the school if this is happening to their child. 6 You do not want to let a situation escalate to a heated crisis before speaking up.
At the end of this article there are further resources I would suggest for some of the more specific needs of particular situations.
Eugene Peterson, noted author and pastor, gives sage advice to parents of teenagers in Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up With Your Teenager:
A search of the Bible turns up one rather surprising truth: there are no exemplary families. Not a single family is portrayed in such a way as to evoke admiration in us. 7
If parents, pastors & others who have responsibilities with young people join in sharing their troubles & insights, their concerns and strengths, they can become a community. 8
Parenting is an incredibly challenging job, and I have found that parents are often having an even harder time than their teens! Do not allow yourself to get isolated. Now, more than ever, recognize the need for your faith to sink even deeper roots:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)