The ABCD’s of Parenting – Part 5

This is the fifth part in a series excerpted from my book God’s Design for the Highly Healthy Teen.

CONNECTING WITH FRIENDS … AND MORE FRIENDS

Besides connectedness with parents, highly healthy teens need connectedness with highly healthy friends, activities, and faith communities. As teens gain independence and go out on their own, friendships become more important than ever.

Having friends can make a huge difference in their lives—for good or for bad.

Just think back to what middle school and high school were like for you. If you had great friends to chat with between classes and eat lunch with, you probably felt life was great.

If you felt as though you didn’t have a friend in the world, life almost didn’t seem worth living.

If you ran with a bad crowd, you were likely influenced negatively. As the Bible says, “Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character.”

Social skills and friendships are huge indicators of teen health and academic success.

Teens who are social outcasts can quickly develop what child development experts call a “cycle of rejection.” Research shows that teens who experience rejection by their peers are more likely to develop serious emotional, relational, and spiritual difficulties later in life.

For example, they don’t like themselves, they don’t like the relationships they have with others, and they experience the incredible lows of loneliness that lead to depression.

You show me teens who are repeatedly rejected by their peers, and I’ll show you teens who drop out of school, get involved in juvenile delinquency, and experience their share of mental health problems.

Laura was a quiet but highly creative fifteen-year-old patient of mine. Her mother was concerned about her poor interactions with other teens. She had no friends and she went to weekend parties wearing black clothes and white face makeup—the “Goth” (short for “Gothic”) look.

I suspected that Laura and her parents weren’t connecting at home, and so she needed to connect with her Goth friends instead. Goths often look at themselves as social rejects, unable to fit in with others at school.

I recommended that Laura’s mom take her to a family counselor.

Several months later, Laura’s mom visited me in my house. I asked how Laura was doing. The mother began fidgeting with her hands. “Dr. Larimore,” she began, “I’m embarrassed to admit this, but the counselor showed us that Laura’s problem was us! We haven’t been the parents she needed us to be.”

She bowed her head and began to weep. Her daughter was an example of someone who needed the close support of her parents, which could help her make friends with more “normal” peers.

Obviously, parents can’t accompany their teens to school and help them make friends. However, we must do everything we can to encourage this process. The dinner hour—meal preparation, eating, and cleanup—is a great time to ask open-ended questions such as, “How’d it go at school today? Is anyone being nice? Are you making any friends?”

You can help your teens make friends by encouraging their involvement in groups and activities in which they can excel at something or share a common interest. From a chess club to the French club to a rock-climbing club, you can find something that will appeal to them.

Recent medical research has expanded our knowledge of the importance of friendships on our health.

We now know that people who do not regularly enjoy meaningful personal relationships with God or others, or who are in relationships devoid of love or caring, are likely to have dramatically lower levels of health.

Lonely teens are at risk to grow up to be lonely adults—and lonely adults are at greater risk for heart attack, heart failure, ulcers, stroke, infectious diseases, mental illness, diabetes, many types of cancer, lung disease, autoimmune disorders, and other life-threatening illnesses. Your teen simply will not become highly healthy without highly healthy friendships.

Some of the criteria we considered before committing to an activity may be helpful for your family as well:

  • Barb and I would discuss whether the activity would help our teens learn more about themselves and what they would like to be in the future. We weren’t interested in activity just for the sake of activity. We usually had these discussions with Kate and Scott present. We wanted them to hear our line of reasoning and to see us interact and make decisions as husband and wife.
  • We viewed more favorably those activities that would develop each of our teens’ unique talents, gifts, skills, and abilities than we did highly competitive activities.
  • We evaluated an activity in terms of the cost in money, time, and effort—both for our children and for us as parents.
  • We compared the cost to the time, money, and energy we had avail- able. In many cases, prior commitments would preclude adding another activity.
  • All things being equal, we would let Kate and Scott choose their respective activities. We avoided pushing them into activities in which they were not interested or activities that met only our interests or expectations. It was important to let them choose activities based on their interests, talents, gifts, time, and desires.
  • Once Kate and Scott became involved in activities, we viewed our role as being supportive but not pushy.

Once the school year was underway, our job was to watch for warning signs of over-commitment or too much stress—loss of interest in the activity, falling grades, loss of interest in and failure to do home- work, physical symptoms (headaches, fatigue, stomach pains), anti-social behavior, or injuries.

I realize these criteria may differ from family to family. But it’s essential for your teen’s and family’s health to carefully evaluate and choose the right balance of activities.

Through the years I’ve seen many parents who didn’t do so, and, more often than not, they were going ninety miles an hour—and they were allowing (or even encouraging) their teens to do the same. It almost always resulted in stressed-out parents and children.

In fact, those of us who treat teens are seeing an epidemic of stressed-out adolescents. Many teens in my practice were feeling the pressure of too many responsibilities and too little time.

Stress in teens is compounded by over-commitment. To allow (or require) teens to go from school to soccer practice and then violin lessons, followed by a fast-food supper in the car before going to a church social, then to arrive home exhausted and still have homework to do, is a recipe for disaster.

Stressed-out teens often suffer from upset stomachs, overeating problems, sleep disturbances, depression, and headaches—and those are just the short-term consequences.

Many parents of my adolescent patients seemed surprised by the amount of homework their teens brought home every afternoon. They didn’t account for adequate homework time before they started adding activities such as sports practices, music lessons, club activities, cheerleading practices, band practices, tutoring sessions, study groups, and youth groups.

Without question, participation in these activities can be a great experience for many, if not most, teens, but there’s no way most highly healthy teens can be involved in more than one or two at a time.

When teens become involved in too many activities, the law of diminishing returns comes into play.

Instead of feeling excited about the opportunity to excel in a particular area, overscheduled teens simply feel overwhelmed.

Parents who desire to nurture highly healthy teens must keep a close eye on their schedule so it doesn’t become overloaded.

Here are a few common signs that teens are experiencing high levels of stress:

  • grinding or clenching teeth while sleeping, napping, or resting
  • frequent headaches or stomach problems
  • poor appetite or other changes in eating habits
  • fatigue, trouble sleeping, or nightmares
  • compulsive behaviors such as nail biting or lip licking
  • poor concentration

You may be thinking, OK, you’ve got my number. What can I do to de-stress my teen?

First and foremost, recognize that it’s easier to prevent stress than treat it. If the stress levels are soaring in your home, you may need to cut back on some activities to allow for times of rest and family companionship.

Remember, activities don’t have to drive the family agenda.

Just as it’s OK to slow down and relax during a vacation, it’s OK—even healthy—to build in some downtime where the family can have fun together and connect in a way that enables parents to show their teens how important and valuable they are.

To learn more, you can read these other posts:

Here are three other posts that may be helpful in nurturing highly, healthy teens:

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