Parental Friendship with their Adolescent

Maintaining friendship with their adolescent is challenging for parents to do

Posted Nov 05, 2012

The reader asked: “Can parents be a best friend with their adolescent?”

This is a complicated question because the answer is in one way ‘no,’ but ‘yes’ in another. And when it is ‘yes,’ that can sometimes be to the good, and sometimes not.

HOW A PARENT IS DIFFERENT FROM A FRIEND. To begin, connection with a same-age friend is not the same as connection with a parent because the origins and making of those relationships are very different.

The biological parent/child relationship is un-chosen in the sense that neither party starts their social association based on any experience of having gotten to like and wanting to know one another better. For parents, a stranger is born into their care; for the child, parents appear as strangers too. The parents may have wanted to have a baby, but now they have to get to know the child they’ve got, while child must get to know parents he or she didn’t ever get to choose.

The power of the parent/child relationship comes from being built on bonded attachment and on family responsibility.

Attachment builds as the caretakers and the care-taken come to nurture affection for each other by engaging in a mutually endearing interaction. The child needs love and the adult wants to give love; and the adult needs love and the child wants to give love in return. Thus, when the there’s a hug between them, both receive love from the warmth of that embrace. Mutual responsibility builds as parents assume their obligation to support and direct the child who assumes an obligation to comply with their direction and accepts dependency on that support. In relation to the other, each has a family role they are expected to play.

Friendship with peers is neither based on attachment or responsibility. It is a mutually chosen relationship. Compatibility and commonality combine with mutual liking to make a social match. Friendship becomes a best friendship when both individuals give it primary social value and the majority of their socializing time. Some common components of best friendship are favoring of each other’s company, personal confiding, harmony from similarity, and enjoying the same tastes in interests and play.

Particularly in childhood, up to about 8 or 9, these qualities can characterize much of the best friendship attachment between child and parent. There is nothing that these best family buddies and constant companions more enjoy than spending time together. However, when adolescence begins, parent and young person usually find it harder to continue such a mutually satisfying friendship.

HOW BEST FRIENDSHIP WITH A PARENT BECOMES HARDER TO MAINTAIN DURING ADOLESCENCE. Starting with early adolescence (around ages 9 – 13) the separation from childhood and family begin as the young person pushes against and pulls away from parents for more independence that makes best friendship with a parent harder to maintain.

Now for the young person there is the need to develop a family of friends with whom spending time is more compelling than hanging out with parents. There is more confiding in peers and more privacy from parents. There is more opposition to parents for freedom’s sake and more differentiation from childhood and parents for individuality’s sake that can lessen closeness that they formerly shared.

So the parent, for whom loss of the old comaraderie is sorely missed, declares: “We talk less, we argue more, and we don’t have as much in common as we once did.” And for the adolescent, vested authority that puts the adult in charge can strain the relationship: “How can you say you’re my friend when you order me around, don’t give me what I ask, or won’t let me do what I want?” When parents pull rank on their teenager, as for safety’s or responsibility’s sake they sometimes must, this enforcement of family inequality can become the enemy of friendly feelings. The adolescent doesn’t appreciate being subordinated, ordered, or denied.

HOW A BEST FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN PARENT AND ADOLESCENT CAN BE BENEFICIAL. What seems to serve the cause of friendship between parent and teenager best is when the adult can distinguish between vertical parenting, where parents assert authority from a superior position, and horizontal parenting, where parent and teenager can relate on equal footing, person to person.

In general, parent/adolescent friendship tends to fare better the more horizontal their relationship can be – when, for example, by having equal say they can find a mutually agreeable way to resolve a conflict: “We’ve come up with a solution we can both live with,” or when they can speak hard, honest truths to each other: “We really see things differently and that’s okay,” or when they simply enjoy each other’s company: “It’s fun spending time together.”

However, there are occasions when parents have to take vertical positions against what the adolescent’s wants for his or her best interests, and these declarations can be hard for the teenager to accept in the spirit of friendship.

At such times, all the parent can explain is that he or she will try to be flexible when they can, but will be firm when (out of loyalty to the teenager’s welfare) they feel they must. “Just because I oppose what you want doesn’t mean I am against you. I am always on your side.” Parents who only want to be friends on a horizontal level are at risk of becoming just good time companions. They can be reluctant to step up and take hard vertical (authoritative) stands when such thankless parenting is required: “I expect you to own up to what you did and face the consequences.”

HOW A BEST FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN PARENT AND ADOLESCENT CAN BE COSTLY. When parents try to turn the relationship with their child into a best friendship for themselves by taking social possession of the child as preferred company and by encouraging the child to do the same with them, the short term benefit from pleasure together can come at a long term cost of close adolescent friendships with peers that do not get to be made.

Sometimes this occurs in families with an only child where parents want the exclusive pleasure of the child’s company and so limit the boy or girl’s socialization with peers by urging how the three of them can have more fun together by themselves. If the child is allowed little peer association and consequently develops no good same-age friends, then parents do become the best friends of the child by default.

As the only child acts more and more adult-like from this adult association, he or she can become more socially dependent on parental company and more socially out of step and uncomfortable with age-mates who are into younger things, who don’t have a grown up tastes or humor, who don’t behave in such verbally and socially acting older ways. So when the time for adolescence arrives (usually around ages 9 – 13), the young person doesn’t separate off to begin building an independent family of friends because of being so socially wed to parents and doesn’t begin to differentiate in search of a unique identity because of being so committed to similarity with them.

The caution is: it’s probably best not to define a best friendship with your child and adolescent as a primary companionship that discourages adequate socialization and establishing ongoing friendships with peers.

How to create best friendship with your adolescent then? I believe the answer is by offering a guarantee, like the one songwriter Carol King described in her anthem, “You’ve got a Friend.” The refrain goes like this: “You just call out my name/ And you know wherever I am/ I’ll come running to see you again/ Winter, spring, summer, or fall/ All you have to do is call/ And I’ll be there/ You’ve got a friend.”

The power of parental friendship for the adolescent is that it is backed up by a history and future of committed love. Unlike the majority of peer friendships that are passing; friendship with parents is permanent. It is this constancy of friendship from parents, whether for enjoying each other’s company, for catching up on what's happening, for sharing good news, or for seeking support in adversity, that can make them among the best friends of all.

For more information about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Teaching Adolescents about Social Meanness in Middle School