Teens and Peer Relationships
As previously mentioned, social and emotional maturity are intertwined. Therefore, as teens' emotional maturity increases their relationships with their peers change as they become more vulnerable and emotionally intimate with their peers. This increased vulnerability and intimacy requires greater trust among peers. Thus, during the adolescent years, teen peer groups become increasingly important as teens experience more closeness in these friendships and more gratifying relationships with their peers as a result. Teens now turn to one another, instead of their families, as their first line of support during times of worry or upset. This increased reliance on friendships is yet another way that teens demonstrate their growing independence.
Because acceptance by a peer group becomes so important, teens may modify their speech, dress, behavior, choices, and activities in order to become more similar to their peers. This increased similarity among peers provides them a sense security and affirms their acceptance into their chosen peer group. The developmental theorist, Erik Erickson, described this developmental step as a crisis of identity vs. identity confusion.
When teens modify their choices or behavior in order to conform to what their friends are doing, they are answering to peer pressure. Peer pressure is often associated with negative outcomes such as skipping school, wearing distasteful clothing, or alcohol and other drug use. However, many parents do not recognize that peer pressure can also exert a positive influence. Because of advanced cognitive and emotional maturity, teens can now encourage each other to make wise decisions, and discourage each other from making harmful choices.
Since it is important for youth to "fit in" with their peer group they may also decide to participate in the same hobbies or activities as their friends. This enables them to spend more time together and to bond over shared experiences. In general, teens will gravitate toward peer groups with whom they share common interests and activities, similar cultural backgrounds, or simply a similar outlook on life. But oftentimes, as teens experiment with their identity, they may be attracted to peer groups with very dissimilar interests.
Adolescent peer groups are quite a bit different from the typical circle of friends that are characteristic of younger children. For instance, adolescent peer groups are closer and more tightly knit. This increased group cohesion is due to the changing quality of teens' relationships. The increased vulnerability and emotional closeness of adolescent peer relationships require more trust; thus, there is a greater commitment and allegiance to their peer group. Increased group cohesion also serves to create a sense of interpersonal safety and protection. When youth have several good friends who remain loyal through "thick and thin," they feel more secure and confident in their social support system.
However, the increased loyalty and cohesion that is characteristic of adolescent peer groups can lead to several problems, particularly in the early and middle adolescent years. Cliques may form and some children will inevitably be excluded. This kind of rejection is often very painful, particularly for very sensitive children. Other times, groups of youth may be negatively labeled for their characteristics or interests, creating tension and conflict between groups. For instance, many popular movies and television shows draw upon the classic conflict between the popular "jocks," and the unpopular "nerds" or "geeks." Conflict and extreme upheaval can also occur among friends belonging to different groups.
Another problem associated with adolescent peer groups is these groups can lead to bullying situations. This may occur when there are disparate amounts of power between groups or between group members. Disparities in power may include physical, mental, social, or financial power. Research performed during the last decade has demonstrated that bullying behaviors are linked to serious and long-lasting emotional and behavioral problems for both the victims and perpetrators of bullying, including depressive symptoms and suicidality (van der Wal, de Wit, Hirasing, 2003; Bond, Thomas, Rubin, Patton, 2001).
By late adolescence peer groups may resemble a close-knit, second family and may provide youth with a large portion, if not most, of their emotional support. This may be especially true if youth reside apart from their families because of school or work, or if youth have separated themselves from their biological families because of conflict or other problems.
In summary, during adolescence the number of close friendships decline, but the quality of these relationships becomes more vulnerable, trusting, and intimate. Meanwhile, the number of causal acquaintances continues to rise, as youths' social networks expand due to sophisticated communication technologies, new recreational and social activities, new educational experiences, and employment.