PROVIDENCE – For parents, back to school for their adolescents can mean many things – good and bad. It can be the return of some order to an otherwise unstructured schedule or the return to stressful homework-filled nights and the struggle to find a free minute.
For some, it presents a chance to get some space away from their teen; for others, it brings the worry related to the lure and pull of their adolescent’s “second family” as the school year brings much more contact with their friends and peers.
The “second family” is what author and child psychologist Ron Taffel calls the “collective power of the peer group and the pop culture.” Taffel calls it “family” because it provides comfort in a different way than do traditional nuclear and extended families. Understanding, empathy, rituals and company are all part of healthy family life and are also attributes that draw teens to spend as much time as possible with their second family.
Today, social media and texting allow adolescents 24/7 access to their friends. Teens needing empathy can tweet their woes to find immediate responses from peers. A teen needing reassurance about her appearance can post a picture of her best-looking self and have 100 “likes” in two minutes, reminding her that she is, indeed, attractive.
Teenage insecurity is not new, but now, accessing relief from it has many different paths. With the return to school and increased contact with peers, the lure of the second family becomes even greater and parents often struggle to compete. What are parents to do when the power of the peers is so strong?
Taffel has several ideas to help maintain the family home as a place where adolescents continue to return as a primary place for comfort. He suggests that traditional family rituals provide some of the predictability and routine that teens seek. Taffel says that many parents mistakenly believe family time must involve quality and enrichment for their children. However, children, adolescents and adults all take comfort in simple activities that provide downtime within their families
Cheering together for a favorite sports team, enjoying the traditional birthday routine with cake and balloons, holding a family movie night – these rituals all represent comfort within the first family.
Taffel also reminds parents that, sometimes, teens are uncommunicative, in part, because parents do not appear to value what is important to them. An adolescent who is prolific when tweeting and texting about who likes whom or what one should wear to watch the football game will usually provide a monosyllabic answer to a parent’s classic question, “How was school today?” Conversely, a mother’s eyes may glaze over when her adolescent frets about “What should I wear tonight?”
By expressing a small bit of interest in a seemingly insignificant subject, a parent can actually help pry open the doors of communication. It is important to remember what may seem of little significance to an adult may be occupying a large portion of the young adult’s thoughts.
Adolescents gravitating toward their peers is nothing new and is perfectly normal. However, the roles of first family and the home base are essential in providing the comfort, predictability and routine that teenagers seek as they journey to adulthood and independence.
Betsy Alper, LICSW (firstname.lastname@example.org) is clinical director, Jewish Family Service in Providence.