Surviving Teenage Friendship

A few weeks ago I went to see MTC’s brilliant production of Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible.

Abigail Williams, a woman in her mid-teens who has been scorned by her older, married lover, wreaks her vengeance by accusing most of the women and some of the men in the village of witchcraft. But it’s not just Abigail. A number of her friends follow her lead and parrot Abigail’s accusations.

In a pivotal scene, Mary Warren, one of the older girls who has been persuaded to finally tell the truth, succumbs to Abigail’s control again and re-joins her group of wilful hysterics. How does Abigail exert her control? By turning her accusatory finger against Mary. It’s a classic example of “If you’re not with us, you must be against us”. In teenage friendship, it’s a powerful tactic of manipulation.

Loyalty emerges as the paramount proof of true friendship when you hit your teens. As you assert your independence from your parents and look to your peers for acceptance and validation, loyalty is the key way to express your new allegiance. At that age, however, loyalty is often expressed through emulation, which is demanded by teenagers who need to have their choices validated, such as those teens who don’t get validation from any of the adults in their life.

If you copy me, you clearly cannot judge me as you will be tainted by the same brush by your own actions.

This is something that Miller captures perfectly in his scenes with the teenage girls, though peer pressure doesn’t always come with a giant signpost and neon-lit arrow. More often than not it plays out in subtle ways, in casual conversations between teens. “You shouldn’t feel so hung up about [insert questionable or risky behaviour here].” “I don’t know why you’re so worried about doing it, I’ve done it a million times.”

The fear of being rejected by the friend who demands emulation is all-powerful. Teens don’t want to be thought of as childish or fearful, and most importantly they don’t want to be rejected and ostracised from the group. Those doing the manipulating know how to leverage that fear and do so to get what they need.

At the end of The Crucible, Abigail Williams absconds, leaving destruction in her wake and abandoning her friends to their own fate.

If you copy me, I will feel better about myself. Oh and by the way, I don’t really care about the consequences for you.

This scenario plays out in teenage friendships all the time – it’s certainly in stories I hear from my nieces and godson – but as you get older, you slowly learn how to navigate through other people’s emotional needs in a more mature way, without sacrificing your own values and surrendering your personal boundaries. You also become more confident. You recognise that showing loyalty is merely being there for your friend and not judging them. You don’t have to copy them. You can be yourself and still keep your friendship.

Provided of course you manage to survive friendship in your teenage years.

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