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P is for Peer, Friend and Social Relationship Support

Posted on May 15, 2011 by laurakastner | Leave a comment


by Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

“All my kid cares about is friends. He couldn’t care less about school”, says one parent.
“My daughter never goes out because she is so shy. I worry about her self esteem and stunted social skills”, says another.

“With the amount of video-gaming my son does, I think it’s been months since he last hung out with friends while looking at their faces!” says yet another.

All parents want their children to have healthful relationships, social “bonds” and support. They know that social skills are crucial for the two most important human endeavors, work and love. Most parents understand that without social intelligence, a big fat intellectual quotient (IQ) is fairly useless.

Understanding the way the brain is wired to connect with others can motivate parents to prioritize social relationships and “face time” during childhood and adolescence. As messy as peer relationships can get during the teen years, parents need to value them as much as academic and athletic prowess if they want a good future for their children.

In this article, I will first explain the nuts, bolts and scaffolding of social development. Then, I will provide advice for parents in their support role. There are some “do’s” and “don’ts” that can make a big difference in nurturing positive friendships.

Brain science research has demonstrated that our brains are wired for social connections with others from the get-go. Babies in the womb activate in response to their mother’s voices. After birth, they prefer a face to other visual stimuli. Babies can mimic a person’s tongue thrusting in the first weeks of life. They are social sponges, responders and engines, with neural connections blossoming in direct relationship with their experiences. Social relating literally sculpts the brain, because the neurons that fire together, wire together.

All of this fancy social capacity is preparing children for the dance of relationships which will ultimately influence just about every aspect of their lives. Social and emotional centers in the brain are intermingled in a spectacular orchestration of neural pathways, allowing humans to become attuned to what others are feeling, learn how the social world works, and figure out how to interact smoothly with others.

Ideally, children learn the gratifications of social interactions with their parents and family during the first years of life. They also learn some of the basic social rules that prepare them for friendships: don’t hit, be nice, share, and say “sorry” after breaking the rules.

During middle school, children have a developmental “thrust” toward enjoying the realm of peers. They yearn to expand the reach of their social worlds as naturally as birds spread their wings in preparation for leaving the nest. This “thrust” means that by the time children reach age 11, they are spending half their waking hours with other children, and they like it that way.

As adolescence proceeds, the majority of teens prefer the company of peers even though they remain securely attached to their parents. This is nature’s way of ensuring that children have the opportunity to absorb adaptive social learning from the second tribe, while benefiting from the protection, guidance and nurturance of the first.

Dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, increases when teens are enjoying the company of peers, especially if something exciting is happening. The motivational structures and processes in the brain compel kids to move into the social world beyond their family fold; parents’ natural bonds to their children motivate them to provide protection and support. Biology is amazing, isn’t it?

A whole new chapter in the social development textbook needs to be added now that “social” means the electronic world too. (See my post “X is for Xbox, electronic and social networking control”). Parents should know the passwords of their novice users in order to monitor online activity with so-called “friends”, as well as their travel patterns. Freedom to travel independently in this social universe should be granted when responsibility is demonstrated.

Nurturing sociability is one of a parent’s greatest responsibilities. Research has determined that positive social connections are the most important ingredient of happiness. Even when parents appreciate all the wonders of social relatedness which contribute to their child’s health, thriving and success, they can work up a case of mega-dread when it comes to sharing their children with peers.

The territory of love, friendship and caring is also that of rejection, cruelty and disappointment. Children learn important lessons from social slings and arrows, as long as they are not extreme or overwhelming. It is best for kids to get exposed to some of the “under” side of social relations, so they can sharpen their social smarts along the way. An even harder parenting truism to accept is that our beloved babes aren’t just receiving some social bruises—they are almost always dishing them out too. (Only the most “evolved” parents wrap their heads around this fact).

Of course, it’s easy to agree in concept that children develop social intelligence by experiencing the highs and lows of relationships. It’s quite another thing–emotionally–for parents to face the tough times which might include deviant peers, cruelty or rejection. We know we can’t get the good without the occasional bad, but when our kids start swearing, crying and defying authority, we wish they could skip those social messes with all our hearts.

Parents can’t dictate their children’s choices of friends after early childhood, because they are based on individual temperaments, tastes, attractions, and sensibilities. Parents often have their own notions about what they think is “good for their kids” in the way of friendships, and tension can arise when they conflict with the child’s.

Parents sometimes wish that their children were popular.  But research has shown that some kids who are considered popular by their peers are actually not well liked, and that group acceptance and possessing a couple of good friends are more important goals. Geeks have even acquired their own cache of late, and more and more movies make them the heroes.

While parents can’t choose friendships, they can do some “social engineering” when they are concerned about negative influence from peers or social isolation. The development of many competencies involves participation in athletics, volunteering and extracurricular activities, all of which can increase access to high functioning peers. Insisting on these healthful endeavors is as legitimate as insisting on school attendance and dental care.

Fears abound about negative peer influence because parents get nervous about losing control. The hurly burly social world outside a parent’s direct influence can trigger primal parent anxiety. Research has shown that parents overestimate negative peer pressure on matters like school achievement and drug use. They often under-appreciate how much children learn from their peers about loyalty, trust, respect, kindness, empathy, respect for differences and cooperation.

As a psychologist who sees troubled families, I understand how parents jump to the conclusion that bad habits come from peers. First, it’s easier to blame peers than human nature for anger outbursts, selfishness and disrespect for others’ feelings.

Second, “peer conformity” (e.g. the natural desire to conform to peers’ customs in order to belong and feel a part of the new tribe) is a murkier concept than peer pressure.

Third, the tribal customs, which may include offensive dress, slang and music, threaten parents when they connote loss of control, danger and the rejection of parental values.

Fourth, risk-taking takes place in the new tribe, so why wouldn’t parents dump their distress about nasty teen habits on the tribe? After all, it is a more concrete target than “normal adolescent development”. But the truth of the matter is that most of the scummy stuff that parents dread about peer contact is driven by normal development—as inchoate a concept as it is.

Peers are sitting ducks for parental wrath when bad stuff happens, and the “mama bear” or “papa bear” reaction is natural. Criticizing friends can result in alienating children, so parents who are worried about negative peer influence should proceed in more strategic ways (see my ParentMap June 2011 article entitled, “When your kid is drawn to the wrong crowd”).

In the social orbit of friends, peers are socializing our children in mostly positive ways. They teach them to consider others’ feelings, temper their distorted or exaggerated thoughts, value reciprocity, and build their capacities for empathy. Because this happens mostly in private, parents do not have the opportunity to observe this magic juju for themselves. If we could identify these angelic peers, we would want to send them a lot of gift cards.

The most important “tip” for parents is to understand and appreciate the complexity, importance, benefits and science of a child’s social development, but here are a few more:

1. Make an effort to know the families of your child’s friends. (You can share notes, agree on rules, and hear about how wonderful your kid is at their house, when you aren’t there).
2. Adjust your social management for your child’s temperament. (Nudge your shy child forward even though he won’t like it. Maneuver your sensation-seeking child away from the wild crowd even though she won’t like it).
3. Incentivize socializing with high functioning friends if you have concerns about your child’s choices. (Baseball or theatre tickets might be expensive, but we’ll do anything for our kids’ health, right?)
4. If you have baggage from your own childhood experiences with friends, know that you could “over-correct” and dump it on your kids. (Talk to friends, spouse or a shrink).
5. Remember that you are your children’s first love relationship. (If they had a good experience, chances are they will apply their positive expectations, skills and emotional sensibilities to their friendships!)
6. As children mature, you may earn the privilege of being your child’s confidante about complicated social matters—if you haven’t blown it by badmouthing their friends previously. (Keep reciting the wise refrain, “You might be right, but are you effective?”)
7. Although caution should be exercised when considering direct action regarding peer relations, sometimes rescue maneuvers are appropriate and mandatory—in situations involving suspected abuse, bullying, social threats, harm risks and more. (Seek consultation! Yesterday!)
8. Keep up with what’s going on in your child’s social networking “electronic” world and leverage access according to your assessment of their healthful social development IRL (in real life).
9. When you find your child’s attraction to a peer mysterious, consider that she may be exploring a part of her identity “by proxy”. (My friend is brave and non-conformist. I want to be near her because I will always lack those traits myself, but I’m fascinated nonetheless.)
10. Believe the good things that you hear about your children from others. Children save their “best selves” for their social relationships outside the home so that they can gain acceptance. (Parents are the secure base—so kids let their hair down at home. Aren’t we lucky? True love).

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