The Peer Group

How to know if your Teenager is Running with the Wrong Crowd



Thomas W. Roberts, Ph.D.

The teenage years are difficult for parents and children.  One of the most common concerns of parents is their child’s peer group influence on attitudes about education, authority, and morality.

Researchers point out that the peer group is not necessarily same age teens, and can include teens of both genders.  Generally, teens bond with others of similar interests who become their peer group.  They also experiment in friendships much the same as they experiment with clothes or hair style.

Teens begin to establish relationships apart from their families in the process of forming their identities.  In a few short years they will be considered adults in our society.  This process includes a healthy separation from their parents.  Naturally, teens become more secretive and less open to parents about their lives during the teen years.

Researchers tell us that the peer group is more influential in the early teen years.  This is partially true because teens need to have solid relationships with others before they can step out of the confines of the family.

As the new school year has begun, teens may have reestablished old friendships or started forming new ones.  As teens change their habits, parents wonder if they have made poor choices in friendships and fallen into the wrong peer group.

Take the following case.  Mary is concerned about her 15 year-old son Jim.  She says that Jim has been receiving phone calls that he seems very guarded about.  He brushes off her questions by saying it was just one of the guys.  He leaves home after receiving calls supposedly to go to a friend’s house but fails to return home by curfew.  He has changed styles in dress and is letting his facial hair grow.  His grades in school have dropped somewhat, but he maintains that the subject matter is difficult and he is doing the best he can.  He enquired how she would feel if he got a tattoo or a piercing, but has done neither to this point.  Mary feels that these changes result from being in the wrong peer group.  She wants to confront him, but doesn’t say anything directly because of possibly alienating him.  She wants to know what she can do as a parent to keep him on the right path.

Like many parents, Mary sees her influence and the influence of Jim’s peers as competing.  She feels that she will lose control to some unknown evil forces in the form of other teens.  Actually, researchers have found that parents and the peer group influence teens in different ways.  The peer group is much more influential in short-term decisions, and parents are more influential in long-term decisions, such as future plans for education and how to spend money.  Generally, parents have more influence over the larger issues while the peer group has more influence over the short-term decisions.

How likely is Jim to be running with the wrong crowd?  Researchers would say that boys are more likely to agree or disagree with their peer group on the basis of anticipated outcomes.  Jim may be influenced by his peer group, but he has also told his mother about thinking about getting a tattoo.  It is a very encouraging sign that his mother’s approval and values influence him as well.

What is more troubling than Jim’s behavior is his mother’s reluctance to talk to him about it for fear that she would alienate him.  Researchers have found that both overly strict and overly permissive parenting results in the same outcome: children are less likely to be open.  What children need are parents who have standards for behavior, communicate those standards clearly and openly, and use consequences for noncompliance that teach responsibility.

Children respond best to parenting that holds them accountable and at the same time respects and values their opinions.  Open communication from early childhood helps children develop a healthy sense of self which aids them in the teen years from being immersed into a peer group vastly different from their families.

Mary should keep in mind that she is not simply in a tug-of-war with Jim’s peer group.  The important factor is the quality of the relationship between her and Jim that counts.

Here are some ideas that might help Mary sort this out:

  • Mary should know what Jim is doing.  Decrease parental involvement is associated with problems not only in experimental behavior, but serious problems, such as juvenile delinquency.
  • Mary should always be willing to talk with Jim about changes in his behavior, demeanor, habits, or lifestyle.
  • Mary needs to establish a rule with Jim that she meet all of his friends, especially those that visit their home.  Getting to know Jim’s friends may completely change her perceptions of them or it may send up more red flags that need to be talked about.
  • Keep lines of communication open about his choices and decision-making processes.
  • Find out what Jim sees in his friends and how he made friends.
  • Mary should accept that she will not always like all of Jim’s friends.
  • Mary should maintain trust until there is good reason not to trust.
  • Mary should keep emotions under rap.  Losing her cool about his friends may reduce her influence on his behavior.
  • Mary should increase her own personal time with Jim.  She should find activities that they can share.  Even if it’s something as simple as playing cards or doing computer games, it will help build a stronger bond.

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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