Updated: Aug 22, 2021
By Lynn Cukaj, ATR-BC www.CreativeExpressionsConsulting.com
Art Therapy for Children, Teenagers and Adults
In talking with adolescents about friends and how to make the best choices when it comes to those relationships, parents need to consider what is motivating their child to be friends with a certain person or group.
What is the quality of the relationship with the parent?
Greenberg and Powell-Lunder (2010) emphasize the importance of a positive parent relationship because that relationship will lead an adolescent to establish positive peer relationships (p. 130). Those relationships that are sought out are typically with peers who the adolescent perceives as possessing similar values and interests (Greenberg & Powell-Lunder, p. 102). Parents of adolescents need to remember that to criticize their teens choices in friends, is an indirect way of criticizing their teen’s own judgment and their sense of identity (Greenberg & Powell-Lunder, 2010, p. 147). Lahey (2015) further states that a parent’s perceived bad friendship may be their teen practicing empathy and learning how to get along with someone from a different background. New friends who are very different from what a parent is used to may not be all bad and Lahey (2015) suggests a non-judgmental approach.
Choosing “better” friends is not the answer as much as the “right” friends for the teen.
It is important to find out if the parents and teen are on the same page as to what that means.
What is motivating a teen to seek certain friends? Parents need to understand that peer relationships are connected to a teen’s need to establish their identity and a need for acceptance (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, pp. 331, 333).
In addition, peer groups serve an important function in a child’s development. These interactions provide opportunities for practicing communication skills, conflict resolution, goal setting, cooperative learning, and decision-making skills (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, p. 324).
Many times, parents have not come to terms that their child is having social and communication issues and is having a difficult time making and sustaining relationships.
Parents may feel frustrated and want to dictate who their teen associates with; however, this approach will certainly lead to more conflict. Lahey (2015) suggests that parents be sympathetic to their child’s difficulties but try not to fix the situation (p. 105).
Prosocial skills are important to develop consistently at each developmental stage.
These skills are connected to a good development of theory of mind skills which help develop prosocial skills which include being cooperative, being able to engage in perspective taking, good self-regulation, good self-control, and clear communication skills (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, p. 327).
These skills have been found to be associated with good self-esteem and self-efficacy (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, p. 327).
In my own experience as a teacher and therapist of children ages 4-12, social competence and peer relationships start as early as the age of 4 (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, pp. 326-327). As a preschool teacher, I observe poor social and communication skills by children at this age and as a group many of them grow to learn how to make friends, sustain friends, and work through conflicts. There are some that stay in the how to make friends stage and will need support, which in my school district is provided by friendship groups. These groups are very helpful because they are a mix of children who are having difficulties and children who find it very easy to make friends. This type of scaffolding where another child helps a child learn to make friends can be very helpful and supportive for a child. It would be beneficial for a child to participate in these groups to help aid in social competence (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, p. 335)
As a parent, understanding a child’s peer acceptance and social competence is an important area to explore.
Are parents aware of their child’s degree of social competence?
What information would be helpful by learning about their child’s social acceptance? Is their child part of the average, popular, rejected, or neglected group of peers?
The category of rejected is the most problematic of the categories and speaks to issues of information processing and aggressive behavior (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, p. 327).
A child’s social competence plays a role in peer acceptance and how those relationships will develop, and the influence one peer has over another (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, pp. 323, 332; Laursen, et al., 2012). Peer relationships are one aspect that can affect how friends are chosen.
In a longitudinal study of twins, the authors found that genetic and environmental factors play a role in teens affiliation with deviant peers (Tarantino, et al., 2014). Therefore, not only does social competence and peer acceptance play a role in peer choices but there is research supporting the influence of genetics and the social environment how neighborhoods and communities affect parenting and family life (Laursen, et al., 2012, Tarantino, et al., 2014).
As a mother of three children, their journey to making friends and sustaining relationships has been a unique process, which I believe speaks to them as individuals and how each developed their social skills. My second child, my daughter, Emma has received special education services since the age of 6 months. Emma’s diagnosis is Speech Disorder NOS. Autism and ADHD have been ruled out. Since she has an older brother, she benefited socially from this experience. Her social and communication needs were delayed and therefore needed outside support and scaffolding from occupational therapists, physical therapists, and many special education teachers. Emma was fortunate because we live in a school district with a fantastic special education department and parent-teacher association (PTA).
Since I knew the importance of socialization, she was enrolled in preschool at the age of two and continued with socialization groups until last year. Obviously, these social skills groups evolved in their approach to mirror what she needed developmentally. These groups were a mix of what the school district offered and what I paid out of pocket for. Her first experience was a group that I brought to my school district. This program is called Kids Express which is run by art therapists and music therapists with the goals to focus on self-esteem building and self-efficacy (www.kids-express-sparc.org). Emma blossomed in this program which was weekly for three years. The school-based friendship groups were facilitated by the guidance counselors and she participated in these groups from kindergarten until 8th grade. Since many of the same kids had been attending these groups, and some of the social issues Emma was dealing with were with these same children, we decided to send her to an outside social skills group. This was in addition to the school based social skills group. As parents we felt that Emma needed a safe space to process her issues with these children and then when she was in school or group with them, she would hopefully find her voice to advocate for herself. Emma is now 16 years old and her ability to choose the “right” friends and be true to herself is well beyond her years. Through my personal experience I have discovered that parenting is a verb, but it is not the same in all situations. Meaning sometimes parents must be very active while other times parents need to step back and observe, be the spotter for their child.
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Broderick, P. & Blewitt, P. (2020). The life span: human development for helping professionals
(5th ed.). Pearson.
Greenberg, B. & Powell-Lunder, J. (2010). Teenage as a second language: a parent’s guide to
becoming bilingual. Adams Media.
Lahey, J. (2015). The gift of failure: how the best parents learn to let go so their children can
Laursen, B., Hafen, C., Kerr, M., & Stattin, H. (2012). Friend influence over adolescent problem
behaviors as a function of relative peer acceptance: to be liked is to be emulated. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121 (1), 88-94. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024707
SPARC, Inc. www.kids-express-sparc.org
Tarantino, N., Tully, E., Garcia, S., & South, S. (2014). Genetic and environmental influences on
affiliation with deviant peers during adolescence and early adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 50 (3), 663-673. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034345