Understanding Teen Socialization: Why Adolescents Prefer Spending Time with Friends Over ParentsSep 01, 2023
Sometime around puberty, the scales tip. Teenagers develop an undeniable preference for their friends over their parental units. They stop turning to their parents for support, advice, and fun. Instead, they rely almost entirely on their friends.
It can be heart-wrenching and unfair. After all, we changed their diapers. When they had nightmares, we slept with them in their teeny, tiny rocket-framed beds. And this is not to mention all the money (so, so much!) that we have spent to give them a wonderful childhood.
But when we dig past these emotions, we can explain why teens may wish to spend time with friends rather than parents during adolescence.
Their friends understand them:
Conflicts arise between parents and adolescents because teens think we are out of touch. And to be fair, in some ways they are right. We wear “fits” that are no longer trendy. We use language that is “cringy.” We don’t quite know how to use the term “fire” in a sentence anymore. We have no idea who their celebrities are.
Beyond that, we can probably be a little bit patronizing when our teens talk about teen issues. Their music hurts our ears and our sensibilities. We do not care what the latest TikTokker did or said. And what have these “celebrities” done to justify their fame anyway?
We don’t know or understand … but their friends do.
In short, one of the ways we can explain why teens may wish to spend time with friends rather than parents during adolescence is this: Their friends care about the same things, and they share a common language in talking about those things.
What you can do:
Be curious about their interests. At a minimum, resist the urge to mock them or roll your eyes when they open up about their interests. You might not share these interests, but you can be respectful about them with the goal of keeping the lines of communication open.
Their friends validate them:
This goes along with #1. Their friends tell them that their “fit slays.” We tell them to change their outfit immediately because no way in hell can they go out in public wearing that.
Their friends think they are cool and funny (and all the other words that mean cool and funny in teen talk). We think they are snarky, rude, annoying, and sometimes entitled.
And we aren’t always wrong. A lot of conflicts arise between parents and adolescents because we don’t like the way they talk to us, but this means that we end up spending more time criticizing them than validating them.
What you can do:
Find ways to validate your teen. Yes, you still need to hold boundaries around the way they talk to you (and others), but you can always find ways to add validation into the equation—even if it's telling your teen that you admire their boldness and creativity, but no way in hell can they go out in public wearing that outfit.
It’s developmentally appropriate for them to be moving toward independence:
Once they get into high school, the topic of “what’s next” is inevitable. They know that sooner than later they will be off to college, or working an internship across the country, or starting a job with a bunch of people they don’t know, and you won’t be there to support them. They need to learn how to stand on their own two feet, but conflict can arise between parents and adolescents as teens start spending more and more time with friends, and parents feel like the people who fund everything but never get any quality time. However, finding their own support group of friends is an important step towards becoming independent. In fact, finding good friends who support and inspire your teen and bring out the best in them will be critical to their success.
What you can do:
Encourage them to “feel people out.” Who feels safe and kind? Who seems to have similar interests and values? Who feels like a cheerleader instead of a ringleader? Even if you are sad because you are no longer their number-one friend, you can help them develop skills so that the friends who have (temporarily) replaced you are kind, supportive, and safe.
They might be rebelling against you.
Very often, when teens feel like they have too little control, they find friends who will support them in their rebellion against you. When this happens, even more conflict arises between parents and adolescents because you will naturally disapprove of these friends, which will in turn make your teens even more committed to breaking free from your control.
What you can do:
Lean in. Get curious. And look for ways for them to earn more responsibility. Try to really hear where they are coming from. Ask them to explain their vision for themselves, what exactly they want, and how they see things playing out if you give them more control over their lives. See if there are some ways you can allow them to demonstrate that they have good judgment.
Their friends don’t have an agenda.
As parents, so much of our communication with our teens is agenda-driven. We can inadvertently drive a wedge between ourselves and our teens because we want them to make better choices, we want them to work harder, and we want them to have different opinions.
Your teenager’s friends probably don’t have an agenda, other than to have fun and feel supported.
Here’s what you can do:
Get on their side so that you can get “buy-in” and stop pushing your agenda. In our Teen Toolkit, we teach skills that help parents communicate without an agenda and get buy-in from their teens, as well as skills for “feeling people out” and choosing safe friends (see #3).
For now, communicate to them that you believe in their ability to make good choices (even if they haven’t quite developed this ability yet). You can do this by asking questions like this: “It seems like you have a really important group of friends. I’m glad you have support. I’m curious about them, though. I don’t know them as well as you do. Would you mind telling me about them?”
The fact of the matter is: There are quite a few factors that explain why teens may wish to spend time with friends rather than parents during adolescence, but your teens still need you. Eventually, you can develop an entirely new relationship—one where both of you are adults who value and cherish your parent-child relationship as well as your role as friends and confidantes.
We believe that raising teens can be joyful and rewarding. We also know that most parents weren’t given a manual for navigating the teenage years. If you are interested in evidence-based skills for raising teenagers (and loving it), check out The Teen Toolkit.
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