For weeks, my daughter had begged me to watch “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a film she’d seen by herself twice. So we carved out a two-hour window one night to take in the rom-com together.
In the movie, the secret love letters of a shy and studious 16-year-old are (somehow!) mailed to her former crushes. It explores the tricky relationships every teen navigates — friendships, romance, frenemies, parents, siblings. It’s “The Breakfast Club” for post-millennials. With smartphones, of course.
It dawned on me that, at 11, my daughter is on the cusp of entering that period where relationships with people other than her dad and me will take center stage. We will become the benevolent, concerned observers with deep pockets. That’s as it should be, but watching the movie’s depictions of misunderstandings, missed opportunities and kids being ostracized left a deep pit in my stomach. How do I help her navigate a time that’s fraught with social peril? And in the primitive, cling-to-my-baby part of my brain, I wondered: Does she really need these other people?
Well, yes. She needs a whole network. A village, if you will.
Teenagers need friendships with their peers to provide “opportunities for learning and practicing social skills, emotional resources and a foundation for future relationships, including romantic ones,” Catherine Bagwell, a psychology professor who studies children’s social development at Oxford College of Emory University, wrote in an email.
“Teens learn how to provide support and advice to another person, how to manage and resolve conflict, how to share confidences and intimacy, and how to be loyal,” she wrote. “They also learn what it means to matter to another person.”
Friends also can guard against what is often a teenager’s biggest enemy — her own mind. “The teen years are a particularly vulnerable time for the development of certain types of mental health difficulties,” including depression, Karen Gouze, a director at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, wrote in an email. “Research clearly demonstrates the importance of social supports and engagement with others as a protective factor against depression.”
And friendships aren’t the only relationships critical to a teen’s healthy development. They also need guidance and support from other trusted adults as they fight through storms of adolescence.
“The more significant adults in their life who care about the teen, the more likely they will make good decisions,” Albert Hergenroeder, chief of Adolescent Medicine Service and Adolescent Medicine Clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital, wrote in an email. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescents to Adult Health, which followed adolescents who were in grades seven through 12 in 1994-95 into young adulthood, has shown “that having an adult at school or at home who shows interest in them, asking them about their day, how is their work going, noticing if they have missed a day at school, is associated with lower health risk behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol and unprotected sex,” he wrote.
Darcia Narvaez, a psychology professor specializing in parenting and child development at Notre Dame, agrees. She often tells teachers that they can be the person who helps a child survive difficulties and find their way, and has practiced this herself.
“When I was a middle school teacher, we teachers met regularly to check in about students, raising concerns and figuring out how to help children feel connected and succeed in the school,” she wrote in an email. “Adults should have primary responsibility to make sure children have the support they need throughout their lives.”
But how can parents help their teens build this village of peers and adults?
Start by determining what they enjoy, then get them involved in related activities, Joseph De Luna, a clinical psychologist and play therapist at Biola University in Southern California, said in an email. This includes connecting them with a positive group of peers who have similar interests, such as youth groups or clubs.
Parents should also show interest in, and monitor, with whom their kids are interacting, both online and offline, De Luna wrote.
The father in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” played by John Corbett, does this to help his daughter, Lara Jean (Lana Condor), form good relationships. “He gets to know his daughter’s friends and appreciates their importance in Lara Jean’s life,” Bagwell wrote. “He serves as a secure base for Lara Jean to rely on for support, offers advice when warranted and although he may be a bit clueless about the details of Lara Jean’s relationships, he exudes warmth and responsiveness and invites her to turn to him if needed.”
Parents also can help teens build a strong support system simply by showing up. Go to events, provide transportation, offer financial support to organizations and get to know the leaders/coaches/teachers of those organizations, Hergenroeder wrote.
Inviting your child’s friends and mentors into your home helps, too, Gouze wrote. It offers an opportunity to listen in an accepting and respectful way to the people your kids like and admire. I’ll have to try hard to remember this one when my daughter wants to make our place the bake sale prep station or the science project lab. A little temporary inconvenience and mess could be worth it if it allows us to connect with the people around her.
And as with pretty much everything involved in parenting, show them how it’s done. “Teaching your children to build positive relationships with other adults starts with the relationship you have,” Gouze wrote. Listen when they talk about things that are important to them even if these things feel trivial. Solicit and respect their opinions. And engage them in conversation in the car, around the table and while you are making dinner, she advises.
Parents can play a significant role in making sure their kids maintain not just friendships, but high-quality ones, Bagwell wrote. She points to the relationship in the movie between Lara Jean and her friend Christine (Madeleine Arthur). Christine listens to Lara Jean, offers advice, stands by her when others are being unkind and goes with her on the school field trip to provide support.
My daughter has a few buddies like this now, and if past is prologue I can see them being her Christines as they become teenagers. “Stick to them,” I’ll tell her, “and never let them go.”
They’re going to need each other.