Understanding Adolescent Relationships

Holly and Jenny have been best friends since 4th grade.  Graduating from grade school together, they moved into middle school where they became “best friends.”  Where in grade school they had similar interests, played well together, and shared fond memories, once into middle school, their relationship has taken on a new form of intensity.  Clothing choices are almost identical.  Hairstyles, make-up, choice of words, matching cell phones, and a sense of merging have been evident to all who know these two girls.  In fact, they even have their own special language which is both spoken and communicated through text messaging.

Carmel Valley San Diego Community | Dr. Kanner | Adolescent RelationshipsAcademically, both have been excellent students, particularly because they are also study buddies, and help each other with assignments and quizzing each other for exams.  Both sets of parents have been amazed to observe how much Holly and Jenny seem to care for one another.  Holly’s mom has frequently stated that it almost seems as if they are each other’s “new mother.” This has been evidenced by the supporting statements overheard, how both defend each other when thwarted by a third party, and how they seem to truly enjoy each other’s company.  In fact, where shopping together, they even sometimes hold hands.

The Holly and Jenny story is a very common portrayal of how many parents describe the “best friend” syndrome of adolescence.  Boys have similar relationships from an emotionally supportive point of view as girls, but tend to demonstrate physical closeness by play fighting or casual joking insults.  Fun headlocks with lots of laughter would be an example of these type of solid bonding.

Trauma is typically evident if these best friend duos “breakup” or fight.  Crying, screaming and even statements such as how can I live without her frequently echo in the households of the adolescents, commonly concerning the parents about the relationship possibly being unhealthy or atypical.

In some cases, the adolescent in turmoil will tell their parents that they can’t go to school, do their homework, or even function.  One adolescent once told me that when she and her best friend broke up, it felt like she lost a limb. During these times the cell phones are burning endlessly with pleas of reunification, consultations with the second best friend asking for advice about how to “get back together.”  In a nutshell, for the adolescent, life feels like it’s over. Although typically temporary for either, the friendship heals or they find a “new” best friend to replace the old one and life returns back onto the right track in a matter of hours or days.  Such common examples frequently leave the heads of the parents spinning and confused due to the drama feeling irrational.

How can we explain these types of “normal” intense relationships?  Furthermore, when the adolescents begin to date, usually (15 years) or at the beginning of late adolescence (16 years), these intense emotions then extend onto the new “love” and have similar highs and lows as the relationships with the same-sex “best friend.”  Sexuality also becomes a cornerstone, making the picture even more confusing and intense.  Many parents who are experiencing these “teen streak” feel as though they are living on the set of a soap opera.

What is this all about?  The answer lies in how these friendships represent and replace the early important relationships to the adolescent.  Ironically, most adolescent parents complain that their adolescents seem to push away from them during the teenage years in efforts to healthfully individuate, which although normal and important, is also painful for most parents.  Furthermore, the healthy parents of teenagers feel emotionally rejected, ignored, barely get a word or two out of their adolescent, and certainly have no clear idea of what is really going on in the personal life of their child, unless they spy, read their e-mails, or hijack their cell phone and read the text messages if they are not encoded.

From a developmental point of view, the friends of adolescents symbolically replace the very early relationship with the parents.  Holly’s mom was driving a group of Holly’s friends in the SUV and was taken back, how while she was driving and looking forward, it was as if the girls in the back of the car did not know she was there.  Turning her head to the side, Holly’s mother heard loving supportive discussions amongst the girls where they all seemed to be maternally nurturing to one of the girls who failed a math test.

It reminded me of earlier talks I used to have with Holly when she was 6 years old…she would never talk like that to me at this point in her life.  To test out her theory, Holly’s mom turned the radio down and warmly commented to Holly’s friend thatIt was only one test, don’t worry about it.”  She was stunned when Holly blurted out—Stay out of this mom”!

As adolescents are in an important stage of development, where they are trying to separate from parents, build a personality, become more independent and autonomous and plan ahead for their future, their friendships become essential to support them through this process as was having parents supportive to them in the early years of life.  This is not to say that the parents of the adolescent should be any less supportive then they were in the early years, it is more a question of how much the adolescent will allow them to be.

Will she ever open up to me ever again?”  Holly’s mother asks.  The answer is yes.  Once through the developmental stage of adolescence and into young adulthood (roughly 18 to 19 years), the healthy young adult feels comfortably independent and strong.  At this point, the relationship with the parent feels less dependent and the early closeness and affection that was present in the early years between parent and child evolves into an adult parent/child relationship that becomes mutually supportive and caring.

Key Points:

  1. Adolescent friendships replace the early relationship with parents.
  2. Parents are frequently not invited into the adolescent’s emotional world.
  3. Emotionality is expected through Middle Adolescence (14-16 years).
  4. Mature closeness returns once they enter young adulthood.

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Carmel Valley San Diego Community | Keith Kanner

Dr. Keith Kanner is a Licensed and Board Certified Clinical Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychologist and Psychoanalyst. In addition to a full-time private practice in Rancho Santa Fe, California, he is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California San Diego where he teaches both human development and also trains medical students how to better understand and relate to their patients. He also serves as the Director of Clinical Counseling for La Jolla Country Day School in La Jolla, California, and is a Clinical Professor at The San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.  Dr. Kanner also sits on the National Board of Directors for Kids Korps USA, which is the largest organization in the country that teaches children and adolescents the importance of volunteering to help the community at large. As a father of three children, he is also a dedicated baseball, football, and soccer coach.

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3 Responses to Understanding Adolescent Relationships

  1. Great article! Very enlightening. Thanks!

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