We want our daughters to enjoy the wonderful bonds of close friendships, and it’s normal for these friendships to take on a more dominant role as girls grow older. But the peer pull often makes striking a friend-family balance difficult. You might start wondering, “Do friends matter more to girls than family?” As parents and stepparents, it’s our challenge to stay connected to our daughters when the peer culture pulls them away from us. Creating a home base of warmth and family support will allow a girl to enjoy her family and her friends without one replacing the other.
Unfortunately, today’s expectations for daughters and parents can make it harder to keep family important in a girl’s life. As parents, we need to ask some hard questions about whether we’re promoting independence and peer group activities too much and too soon.
For example, if well-meaning parents book an overload of play dates and push friend activities when a girl is young, she may seem popular and independent. But this parent-driven social scene can have a risky tipping point if she starts feeling more connected to friends than family. During the later teen years, the family’s base may not be strong enough to provide the necessary influence to keep her strong and stable. One mother describes her disintegrating relationship with her adolescent daughter as “water slipping through my fingers.”
Other influences also make it hard for girls to resist the strong, gravitational pull of peer culture. Media and marketing messages urge kids to reject parental influence and appear “independent” (achieved by buying whatever product’s being pushed). On top of the message that family isn’t “cool,” the typical teen’s rat-race schedule increases time with peers and decreases time with family, making our family units seem more disconnected.
The good news is that if we step back and re-evaluate, we can begin to change the habits that could be pushing her out of the family nest. “We do our children a tremendous favor when we insist on valuing the family,” says Amy Lynch, author of the girls’ book Real Families: Figuring Out Your Family and Where You Fit In (American Girl, 2007). It takes confidence and faith in ourselves to resist giving into the cultural forces. “We have to have a baseline value that family togetherness matters, that it’s actually good for her,” Lynch notes.
The benefits of family
For the most fortunate girls, coming home is like being wrapped in a cozy blanket after a day in the cold outdoors—and a warm and welcome home is essential to counter the lure of peer world. It’s a factor that, more than anything else, may differentiate the “haves” from the “have-nots.”
A strong family develops relationship confidence. The girl whose parents are able to offer her acceptance and admiration is much more likely to move fluidly back and forth from her family to her friends. If her peer group isn’t working for her and doesn’t provide the good feelings she needs, she’s more likely to move among peer groups until she finds one that feels good. She’ll be honing an essential skill that will keep her strong as she begins exploring romance, partner selection, and adult friendships.
Tools for togetherness
To shore up a family foundation, a general discussion with your daughter about your own efforts to better balance friends and family may be useful. You can reassure her that her friends will and should remain important to her, that you understand her desire to spend more time with them as she gets older, and that they are always welcome in your home. Discuss the media and ads aimed at teens, tweens, and younger kids—all stressing that peer relationships are ultra-important, and maybe even everything. Talk about the absence of family in the messages. Offer your views, and draw out her observations and opinions as well.
As you strategize ways to balance the influence of family and peers, consider how effective (and fun!) rituals are in keeping you all close during the teen years. Go beyond the holiday rituals, and think of simple, fun things she can look forward to every day—like dinnertime together. Begin putting these rituals in place early on so they become part of the fabric of the family. That makes these interactions largely non-negotiable later on because they are something are “we just do.” During the teen years, rituals ground her in the family, reinforce the team concept, and preserve physical time together. Even if you begin when your daughter is older, the rituals can still prove powerful.
Let’s say your family gathers for dinner and conversation every Sunday without fail. The smell of the food and the comfort that surrounds the experience becomes part of her. When the pull from peers feels like a magnet, the longstanding tradition of Sunday dinner pulls positively in the other direction.
There are plenty of opportunities to infuse family-building into everyday life. It may be as easy as the funny way you greet each other; a regular “date” for a meal or movie at home; a tender exchange at her nightly tuck-in; laughter during a quick card game; Saturday morning cleaning (to her favorite CD playing really loud); or a monthly visit to an elderly relative. Small things, such as everyone in the family signing cards to extended family and friends can give her a sense of belonging. When we attend each other’s recitals and events, it reinforces the message that “we’re here because you’re one of us.”
And it’s not just sharing the happy moments that count. The hard times build connections as well —the misery of a hike in the rain, the anger over a disagreement, or even the grief of a shared loss. “Feeling strong emotions with each other, whether happy or sad, is at the very heart of connection and of love,” says Lynch. “By going out on the edge with our own emotions, our kids can too, which only helps them develop and grow as people.”
Parents have to choose their battles with teenagers, but with enough connections in place, we can flexibly negotiate away some family time without losing our closeness to her. Contrast this with the family that doesn’t eat together, attend functions together, or act as a team early in life. When the teen years come, it is unlikely that a daughter in that family will value staying connected. Instead, she may just feel rage, or depression, or anxiety.
When connections within the home are strained, a girl may naturally look more to her friends for acceptance and empathy—or even survival.
Parents can feel unappreciated and resentful when a daughter avoids being at home. Met at the door with guilt, she may retreat even further. The higher these walls go up, the more communication breaks down. When this occurs, it’s essential that parents gain support not only from one another, but from resources outside the family. Books, talks with friends, or counseling can be a tremendous help in repairing the bond.
When there are fundamental differences between your values and the values of your daughter’s friends, developing a closer connection and open communication is the critical factor that will keep her safe and strong.
“I had to get creative since I couldn’t meet my daughter on my terms alone anymore,” says one mother. “I had to consider her opinions and needs in a new way.” For example, recognizing that his oldest daughter’s nights were often spent with her friends, psychologist and father Larry Beer began an early-morning ritual of stopping at a coffee shop with her before dropping her off at school. “Getting up earlier wasn’t my first choice, but it was the only time she was available and so it was worth it,” he says. Beer made the coffee dates part of his schedule long after his daughter was driving herself to school—a small sacrifice that paid huge dividends in a close and constant relationship.
Even when relationships are strong, there will inevitably be rifts. When rules are challenged or broken, a punishment like grounding does little if she’s alone in her room, isolated from the family. Instead, consider reconnection as part of the consequences you give your daughter. Requiring her to go for a walk with her mother, take her sister to a movie, or help with a household fix-up project offers opportunities to re-establish family roles, reconnect and get back on track.
Connecting two worlds
Finding opportunities to merge family and friends is also key. When his daughter asked friends along to their dad-daughter coffee, Beer remembers that he “missed the alone time with my daughter, but I welcomed the opportunity to get to know her friends better and for them to know me.” Creating time and space for this new circle of friends in our world may not always be easy or convenient, but it’s always time well spent. When you welcome her friends into the family fold, your daughter will likely appreciate the way you engage with and honor them as people who care about her.
Like so many things in life, parenting involves negotiation, conviction, and self-assurance—often in short supply when the culture is selling our children one message and we’re feeding them another. The fact is our children do need us, desperately. They need our time and our attention, even if they can’t verbalize it.
In my work, I often ask adolescent girls, “Do you wish you were closer to your mom and dad?” Almost without fail the answer is yes. Young people need both their family and their friends, and it’s our job to help them negotiate this balance and to have the courage to find acceptance and love in both.
Patti Criswell is a social worker in private practice in Kalamazoo, MI. She is also the author of several books, including A Smart Girl’s Guide to Friendships Troubles (American Girl, 2003) and Go For It (American Girl, 2008). She teaches, writes, and speaks on the topic of adolescent girls and their families.