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Self-Esteem

Social Support Can Salvage Your Teen's Self-Esteem

The friend group your child can't live without also causes pain. You can help.

Key points

  • Friend groups can benefit from the new perspective of new members.
  • Groupthink occurs most often where there is a high level of similar beliefs and backgrounds, but it can prevent personal growth.
  • The effect of peer pressure is minimized when a teenager is exposed to a variety of different people from different environments.

Are the friends you have the friends you should keep?

"Ella," Jillian spoke up, "I don't mean to be rude or anything --"

"What?" Ella asked Jillian, clearly defensive of what might come next, but also curious about what Jillian, two years older than Ella, would say.

It was the first session of this cycle's teen/tween social support and skills group and everyone—myself included—was feeling a bit on edge as we attempted to feel each other out.

"Ella, I've seen you with your friends, and sometimes they try to make you feel stupid, or they leave you out of some joke that makes no sense at all --"

"I don't think those girls act like they are your friends," Bethany suddenly spoke up.

Bethany was the youngest in the group and had yet to utter a word until this moment.

"Ella, what do you think about what Bethany said? Do you feel like you give more to these friends than they give to you?"

Ella bravely, sadly, nodded her head in agreement.

The Fragility of Friendships

The more time we spend with friends who smoke, drink, abuse substances, and are disrespectful, the more our own behavior begins to mimic theirs. The emphasis the group places on diet, food, exercise, body image, and overall self-worth is contagious, in that the more they prioritize the numbers on the scale, the more you will begin to prioritize those numbers as well.

Poor body image is a huge predictor of depression in adolescent females, with data from 2020 finding that poor body image and major depressive disorder occurred in 25.2% of their sample.

But ... It's Only High School?

As a parent of a soon-to-be-teenager, I want to believe that these teenage years will not leave a mark on my child.

I want to have faith that whatever scars these friend groups leave in their wake will one day lead to better decisions for their future.

But when it comes to body image and self-esteem, adult women often remember that pain well into adulthood.

And if your child's friend group begins to value delinquent, acting-out behavior, being cruel to others, using alcohol, etc., who is to say that this behavior won't soon escalate to more dangerous behavior such as drinking and driving and experimenting with more dangerous substances?

 Shadowrichi/Pexels
Mama always said, "No one remembers high school." But, sometimes Mama can be wrong. Really wrong.
Source: Shadowrichi/Pexels

Friend Groups and Groupthink

It is only logical that the people your teen or tween spend most of their time with have a tremendous impact on your offspring.

Do you remember your friends when you were younger? Did you like all of them equally? Were they all good people, open to embracing the strengths and weaknesses of their peers? Or were some of them not great people at all?

What Is the Problem With Groups?

  • Groups tend toward the median, the average and most common way of thinking, which means that the best and brightest thought processes are often overlooked.
  • Groups value safety over success and so they often avoid taking risks. But taking risks is what helps us to learn and grow.
  • The group will stick together out of fear of being labeled an outcast, rather than loyalty, justice, or critical thinking.
  • A group carries with it a threat of being different—if I act differently or feel differently or point out a flaw in the plan of the masses, will I be kicked out of the group?

How Can You Help?

  1. Encourage your teen or tween to have friends outside of the fishbowl of their school. Sports, arts, and religious organizations will all increase your child's exposure to different people, which diffuses the power of peer pressure within your child's friend group.
  2. You may notice that your child is increasingly unhappy with the friend group who has been "besties" forever. Often jealousy will arise over who spends more time with who, which makes someone else feel left out. Sometimes the group begins to tease someone within the group, which subconsciously helps the other group members feel more secure and cohesive. A telephone call to the school guidance counselor or school psychologist is a good start, since there are often lunchtime social support groups. This gives your child a chance to meet new people and make new friends—not instead of their friend group, but friends they have in addition to their friend group. Allow this to be a reminder that the world is a lot bigger than high school.
  3. Many therapists offer social skills groups or social support groups that cater to this age group. Historically, the groups have been grouped in an age range usually limited to two or three years. However, in my experiences, such as the incident with Jillian, Ella, and Bethany, it seemed that there was something quite beneficial about having individuals of different ages learn from and help guide each other.

The Power of the Zone of Proximal Development

The Zone of Proximal Development is a term often used in developmental psychology. It refers to the distance between what an individual is capable of doing on their own, and what an individual can achieve when they are supported or guided by someone who has more expertise. Often you will hear the term "scaffolding," a reference to both physical structures used to help support buildings while they are being repaired, as well as academically, when students are given a vocabulary lesson before being assigned a difficult reading task.

Social support groups that allow for a wider age range provide the opportunity for the group members to learn from the experiences of others, and for the elder members to leave the group with improved confidence and the knowledge that they can make a difference in the world.

In our group, Ella was able to see things differently when Jillian spoke up.

Jillian was older and had more experience with toxic friendships and had also witnessed firsthand some occasions when Ella's friends had mistreated her.

Bethany learned something from listening to the conversation between Jillian and Ella, but also simplified the most important rule of friendship: Friends are people who are nice to you. People who are not nice to you should not be your friends.

Somehow, it sounds so simple when someone else says it, doesn't it?

References

Glaser B., Shelton K.H., Van den Bree, M.B. "The moderating role of close friends in the relationship between conduct problems and adolescent substance use." The Journal of Adolescent Health. 2010 Jul;47(1):35-42.

Kristen Murray, Elizabeth Rieger, Don Byrne. "Body image predictors of depressive symptoms in adolescence." Journal of Adolescence, Volume 69, 2018, 130-139,

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