The teen years are that transitional time when teens take (or maybe shove) their parents off the metaphorical pedestal and, instead, put most (or all) of their time, energy, attention and concern into their friendships, peers and dating relationships. This can be so hard for parents! I mean, who wants to go from being someone’s hero to being ignored, dismissed or sometimes even seeming despised?! Ugh! But, as difficult as this change can be, parents can hold on to knowing that it’s not personal. Really. No matter what your teen may say, it’s not about you.
Developmentally, teens are supposed to focus on sorting out their identities during this time. Part of this identity development means trying out different activities (which may or may not be activities you want them to partake of) and trying out peer groups. In order for teens to explore who they are, they need to distance themselves from their families. Biologically, this shift helps prepare them to separate from their parents and go out into the world to survive on their own. As human beings, we need community and other people, so for teens, their peers become the ultimate source of connection.
As parents, you naturally want and hope that your teen will choose healthy, supportive, positive peers to have in their life. In healthy friendships and dating relationships, you may notice your teen generally seems upbeat and content. When you see your teen with their friend or significant other, there’s an atmosphere of respect, trust and appreciation. They talk (or text, Snapchat, Instagram or fill-in-the-blank), listen to each other and laugh. They may have arguments or disagreements, but you get a sense that they’re generally trying to work through problems. While almost no relationship is without stress, teens with healthy friendships and dating relationships overall feel connected and have peers they can go to for support. These kinds of relationships make teens feel good most of the time.
Teens in less healthy relationships may feel more alone or misunderstood. They may be moodier, crying more often or seeming more irritable (although hormones, brain changes and all sorts of life stress can affect a teen’s mood, so this isn’t a clear cut sign). Some clearer warning signs of an unhealthy relationship are:
- One person trying to control another. This may look like a boyfriend or girlfriend who constantly wants to know where their partner is, what they’re doing and who they’re with and who becomes angry or unreasonable if they don’t immediately get a response to their texts or posts. This might also be a boy/girlfriend dictating how the other should dress or what their appearance should be like and who they can talk to.
- Name-calling. Because teens may feel their emotions so intensely, there will probably be times when they’re upset with their peers. That’s okay. However, one teen calling another names or insulting or demeaning a peer crosses into unhealthy.
- Lack of respect. Just like all of us, teens have the right to express themselves and to agree or disagree with others’ opinions, thoughts, beliefs, etc. The key is that they disagree with respect. If a teen is being blamed, insulted, demeaned or put down because of their opinion, belief, appearance or value, that’s not okay.
- Lying or dishonesty. There may be times when teens exaggerate or even flat out lie to each other. This becomes a problem if it happens a lot or most of the time. Any friendship or relationship in which one teen is frequently lying is probably unhealthy.
- Co-dependence. Teens tend to form intense bonds with their friends and boy/girlfriends. Such close relationships are normal during adolescence. However, if a teen expresses that they can’t do anything without their (boy/girlfriend, friend), doesn’t feel like a whole person without their (boy/girlfriend, friend), can’t make decisions without their (boy/girlfriend, friend), these can be signs of an unhealthy, codependent relationship.
- Manipulation. If a peer is coercing, tricking or making a teen feel like they "have to" do what the peer wants, or if it seems to you like your teen is being pulled around on puppet-strings, manipulation may be occurring. This is pretty much always a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
- Abuse. Of course, any form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse or threats of abuse are signs of an unhealthy relationship. If abuse is occurring, it’s probably best to seek professional help for your teen and your family.
Hopefully, your teen knows and understands healthy relationships and won’t need to work through an unhealthy relationship. The catch that I sometimes notice for teens is that they’ll have a friend or boy/girlfriend, and everything starts out great and is super exciting but slowly morphs into less healthy dynamics. Healthy and unhealthy relationships may not be clear cut. I also notice that sometimes, despite being well-intentioned, teens can get pulled into unhealthy relationships during this time when they’re trying to figuring themselves and their peers out.
If you ever become worried about relationship dynamics you see going on for your teen, I invite you to try these tips:
- Remember to do that check-in with yourself about what kinds of relationship dynamics you’re modeling to your teen. I know, it may seem like they’ll do the exact opposite of whatever they see you do, but they really are still sponges absorbing what they’re around.
- Check in with your teen. Do your best to be kind, open and not show judgment. (Teens have a sonic radar for judgment and will tune you out immediately!) Express your concern about what you’ve been noticing by saying something like, “I wanted to ask how things are going with _______. I noticed the last couple times you came home from seeing them you seemed upset, and when I walked by your room, I thought I heard ________ yelling on facetime. Do you want to talk about it?” Then, if they say no, you have to allow that and not pry. (This helps them trust you and not shut down immediately if you try to talk about something serious.) You might follow up with, “Okay. Just know I’m here if you want to talk about it.”
- If you continue to observe or get a sense of unhealthy relationship dynamics, follow up with your teen. Again, kindly and non-judgmentally, mention what you’ve observed or are concerned about like “It seems like _______ exaggerates the truth sometimes, and it bothers you,” or “I notice that _________ is often asking where you’re going and who you’re with and gets mad if you don’t answer right away. It worries me that they’re kinda being controlling.” (Using language like “maybe,” “kind of,” “sometimes,” “I wonder,” “I notice,” and “it worries” or “concerns me” can soften a difficult message and make it a little easier to hear.)
- Under most circumstances, please don’t forbid your teen from seeing or talking to this friend or dating partner. (If abuse is happening, that may require a much more direct response, and professional support can be very helpful.) Otherwise, giving an ultimatum is about the fastest way to ensure your teen is going to spend even more time with or be even more determined to continue their relationship with this individual.
- Continue checking in with your teen, offering an opportunity to talk and sharing your concern. If your teen doesn’t want to talk to you, remember that’s normal and natural (as much as it sucks). You might also offer a family friend, trusted relative or seeing a counselor as other options for places your teen can go for support.
While I hope your family never needs these tips, as a therapist, I also know it’s better to have the tools, just in case. Of course, if you ever need extra support for yourself, your family or your teen around navigating healthy vs. unhealthy relationships, we’re just a call or email away.
PS—Our Teen Support Group is ongoing and can be an excellent place for teens to get healthy, positive support from peers and be able to talk through those subjects that might just be too hard or tricky or awkward to bring up at home.
Take good care,
Ivy Griffin, LMFT # 51714, Director
Thrive Therapy & Counseling
1614 X St., Suite A
Sacramento, CA 95818