My niece is 16 years old and has always been very mature for her age.
When she was 6, most of her friends were 8. When she hit her tween years, a lot of her friends were teetering on the edge of 13. And now that she’s a teen with a job, my sister is noticing a lot of the new friends she’s making are in the 18-19 age range.
At any other point in life, having an older friend isn’t that big of a deal. But when you have a teen, an “older friend” oftentimes means an adult – and that can be a tough situation for parents to navigate.
So, is it OK for teens to be friends with young adults – and how can parents set up boundaries and rules to ensure their child is safe? Amanda Klingensmith, a licensed clinical psychologist with McCaskill Family Services in Plymouth, weighs in.
Innocent or not?
The first thing parents should realize is that it’s not uncommon for teens to develop friendships with people who are a bit older than them, she says – especially if they meet in high school.
“You could see a freshman that becomes friends with a junior or senior – and when kids start to get jobs, they start to meet people that are older,” Klingensmith explains.
In many cases, the friendship is innocent and the pair may just enjoy each other’s company. However, there are some times when the relationship could be a bit more problematic.
“If they are ever asking your child for pictures or money, or if they are pressuring them into doing things that they aren’t comfortable with or if they are trying to bring them into situations that aren’t inappropriate, those are red flags and things to watch out for,” Klingensmith says.
To ensure you can spot these red flags if they arise, Klingensmith recommends parents keep open communication with their child – and get to know their child’s friends before letting them spend time alone with them.
When your child tells you that she has a friend who is a bit older, Klingensmith says that it’s important to remain calm and have a conversation about safety. Once you’ve done that, enforce the same rules that you would with any other friend.
“Have a clear set of expectations and rules and do not waiver from that – no matter the age of the person,” she explains. “If a parent has a rule you can’t go to someone’s house unless there’s a parent there, that rule still stands, and it’s not because the friend is older. It’s because that’s the rule.”
If you decide to track your child’s phone or put other rules in place, Klingensmith says it’s important to be upfront about it with your child.
“Parents try to be sneaky sometimes, because I think they think there will be less of an argument. But once the child feels like they are being tricked or lied to, it can escalate really quickly,” she says.
If rules are broken, Klingensmith adds that parents should implement the consequences they have set – just be sure to reward good behavior when it happens, too.
While there’s no reason to say ‘no’ to your child’s older friends upfront, Klingensmith says that parents should not be afraid to say no if they don’t feel comfortable.
“Teens aren’t legal adults until age 18 because of brain development, and the part of their brain that isn’t developed yet is the part that can foresee the consequences of their actions,” she says. “It’s the parents’ job to keep their children safe and help them see the possible dangers.”
In addition, if parents are feeling uneasy, they can also set up a safe word with their child in case they need to ask for help in a subtle way.
“It’s good to let (your teen) go out and experience the world and potential consequences,” Klingensmith says, but “the No. 1 question is if you, as a parent, are comfortable? If not, do what you need to do to feel comfortable and let them go.”