Know the Friends

By: Pamela Garfield, LCSW
ACS Site Director at Gunn High School

Last year I had a great opportunity to lead a discussion of parents in the Sophomore Parent Network. Many parents in the group were worried about substance abuse and were wondering how to ask their children about drugs. ‘How do we communicate when they are growing so independent?’ ‘How do we remain in the know?’

Ahhh the joys of raising a teenager…

Therapists call this adolescent stage “Separation Individuation.” This is the phenomenon of your kid growing more independent and needing to learn life lessons on his/her own, yet still needing you as a base when he/she gets in over her head.  One minute he/she is responsible, the next minute he/she is impulsive, immature, and clingy. What is a parent to do? How can one keep up?

The reality is even if you are the best parent in the world, it’s unlikely that your teenage son or daughter will tell you everything. This is especially true if there is a topic that is shameful or embarrassing.  It’s part of normal development.

So what do you do if your independent teenager gets into trouble, how can you know? If a teen withdraws, a parent can feel stuck.

In the PTA meeting, a wise parent said “Get to know your child’s friends.”

If your child is going through something they feel ashamed to talk to you about, the friends are more likely to tell you about it if they feel comfortable with you.

The Palo Alto community has shifted in the last five years. Students are being trained in QPR – Question, Persuade, Refer – in their Living Skills classes ( As a result, youth have learned to speak up about someone in trouble. Many have already had positive experiences talking to an adult about getting help for a friend.  The community has learned to come together and help others. However, it can still be difficult for a struggling teen to talk to their parents about their difficulties.

As the new school year starts and your child is making new friends, take notice and interest in them. Notice who your child’s friends are because they may have shifted from last year. Be approachable and available to your child’s friends because they will probably be your most valuable resource.