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Peer Relationships and Identity

The impact of peers on adolescents cannot be underestimated. The right people crossing their path at critical times can reinforce positive values and enhance the entire process of growing up. The wrong individuals can escort them into extremely negative detours or suck the life out of them.

Your job is to pray with utter abandon for the friends your adolescent will make over the next several years. Without being too pushy about it, make every effort to make friends with your teenager's friends. If your home is the most teen friendly in the neighborhood, chances are the troops will gather under your roof or in your backyard and respond to your influence in the process.

Because peers can play such a serious role for good or ill in your teen's life, you will need to be forthright and directive about where and with whom his time is spent — especially in the early years. If the drama club, 4-H, Scouts or athletic teams provide a consistently healthy niche, by all means encourage them. But if a new "friend" who manifests an abundance of toxic language and behavior enters your adolescent's life, don't hesitate to take some defensive measures. This may include insisting that they spend time together only under your roof with an adult on the premises (and no closed bedroom doors). If it becomes apparent that your teenager is being swayed toward destructive habits, however, reasonable measures to keep them separated will be necessary.

If your church has a strong and active youth group, do everything you can to support it and your teen's involvement in it. But if your youth group has gone stale or has become a clique zone, find another one. The program should honor your family's faith and values, of course, but should also accept all comers, build positive identities and be fun as it promotes spiritual growth.

The task of developing a coherent identity

Whether they are National Merit Scholars or total nonconformists (or both), adolescents are fervently searching for a clear sense of identity. Whatever the guise or getup, the questions they continually ask boil down to these: Who cares about me? and What can I do that has any significance?

If the answers are "my God, my family and my close friends" and "impact the world in a positive way," your main task — and it usually will be a pleasant one — will be serving as cheerleader and sounding board as your son or daughter finds the best track on which to run.

If the answers are "my friends (and hardly anyone else)" and "have fun (and hardly anything else)," the ultimate outcome could be more unpredictable. Most adolescents with this mind-set eventually grow up and find a productive niche, while some stay in this shallow, meandering rut well into adulthood. Some also drift into drug use or sexual activity in their search for the next diversion — and ultimately pay dearly for it.

For the teenager whose answers are "no one" and "nothing," if different answers are nowhere on the horizon, the consequences may be more serious: depression, acting out, even suicidal behavior.

Obviously, it is important that your child enter adolescence with some clear and positive answers to the questions of caring and significance. During the coming seasons, he will probably ask them often and in many different ways — some of which may catch you way off guard. Even if he has lost his bearings or abandoned common sense, you will still need to communicate that your love and his significance are unshakable. As in earlier years of childhood, you will need to enforce limits and help him make some course corrections until he is on his own. But he must always know that your fundamental love for him will never change, regardless of grades, clothes, a messy room, dented fenders or more serious issues.

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Adapted from the Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 1999, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

Next in this Series: Discovering Interests and Developing a Worldview