Appreciating Adolescence: The Role of Peers

June 25, 2012

By Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D.[i]

Human beings are highly social animals – and perhaps nothing illustrates this reality more than a teenager. During the years between childhood and adulthood, the drive to spend time with peers increases substantially, and many scholars of human development suggest peer relationships become the most important and influential relationships in the lives of teenagers (much to the dismay of many adults). But why? What is so attractive about spending massive amounts of time with friends during this stage of life?  Why do these relationships, at least temporarily, often become the most important thing in an adolescent’s world?

The traditional answer to these questions argues that adolescent peer groups are a gateway to experimentation with different experiences and identities as part of the individuation process (i.e., developing a sense of “self” independent from parents). There is little doubt that peer groups facilitate achievement of this task through the safety afforded by numbers when engaging in unfamiliar or risky activities, testing every-changing boundaries, and practicing new skills. In other words, teenagers are attracted to novelty as they test the waters of early adulthood – and there is not much more interesting (and affirming) than a peer also seeking new and exciting experiences.

But there is another, sometimes overlooked, reason why peers are so drawn to one another during this period of development:  investment in the future. Although we are born into the world of our parents, the majority of our life is spent in a world shaped and run by our peers. Building relationships with our peers – and having the skills necessary to understand and navigate the ever-emerging culture of our generation – is critical to our success. Indeed, shared meaning and social connectedness go a long way toward ensuring survival as a fully independent adult.

So, the next time your teenager or an adolescent with whom you work ditches you for what seems to be unproductive time with friends – remind yourself they are developing skills and bonds critical to success as an adult. And when these young adults appear to value the approval and advice of other youth over your sage wisdom – remind yourself that new ideas encourage curiosity, perspective, creativity, and independence. Of course, our job as adults is to serve as a secure foundation and safety net during this time of exploration. Doing so with an appreciation of what adolescents need to thrive in both the short-term and long-term goes a long way toward changing some of the prevalent negative stereotypes about teenagers and effectively supporting this important developmental stage.


[i] Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D. is the Director of the Juvenile and Family Law Department at the NCJFCJ. His research and teaching interests include adolescent development, resiliency, and delinquency. This news brief is the first in a series exploring an asset-based approach to understanding the stage of human development we call “adolescence”. 


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