The Freshman Social Frenzy — and how to cope

Q. It has been a difficult year for us. As soon as my daughter started high school, we were bombarded with all sorts of social dilemmas that we thought were years away. At sports events and dances, she suddenly was asking to socialize with upper classmen and even to get rides from them. She’s only 14, and we have a rule that she can’t date until she’s 16, but she felt she needed to have a date to go to some of these events. We don’t want our daughter to be a social outcast, but how can we deal with all of these pressures and still raise our daughter with values?

The pressure to “go out” with someone of the opposite sex is starting earlier and earlier; it is not uncommon for girls in elementary school to say they have—or want—a boyfriend. As tweens hit middle school, the needs to feel desirable, to be seen “cool,” and to achieve popularity only increase. At least researchers and childrearing experts are in agreement: The most important ingredient in raising well-adjusted teens who resist risks such as substances, unhealthy sexual activity, and violence is a close relationship with parents. Parents who want to guide daughters to take good care of themselves in their social lives have to maintain good connections, convey values, and set limits.

This is always challenging, but especially during the transition to high school. Suddenly, young teens are thrown together with classmates who are as much as three or four years older and have enormous developmental differences in skills, interests, and maturity. The prospect of getting attention from older students is both exciting and nerve-racking to freshman girls. Being sought after by upper-class boys can be a heady experience! For parents of these young teens, however, alarm bells typically go off. Social dilemmas may seem to materialize too soon—and too often. Is going to a dance with someone actually dating? When should young teens be allowed to go to a party with upper-classmen? Drive with older students? Be at an unsupervised home?

It is important to realize that this onslaught of parenting conundrums is difficult, but perfectly normal. Plus, on the bright side, you now have many opportunities to clarify your values, expectations, and rules. It is important to do some soul searching to figure out what you believe is appropriate behavior for your freshman or sophomore daughter. Does she have the skills necessary to handle sought-after social situations? Although it is often helpful to get information and feedback from parents and professionals you respect, at the end of the day you’re the expert on your daughter’s readiness for social experiences and your family’s beliefs about when they should take place.

Be prepared for the possibility you will have to buck the tide (“But everyone else’s parents said they could go”) and stick to your guns (“Maybe, but in our family we believe that _____”). No social event, even if it’s the “most important thing EVER” should take precedent over pre-established boundaries. If you expect your child to withstand social pressures and make wise decisions, you have to model this by withstanding parental pressures and adhering to your rules.

The best approach to having a new high school student is to acknowledge that this transition will be exciting but also challenging for everyone. Enlist your daughter’s trust by promising to consider seriously and thoughtfully every decision. The more openly you can discuss concerns and alternatives, the better you can make informed decisions. That way, you will be helping your teen to make the best social choices, which is a most worthy goal in these challenging times.

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