Recently, a well known educator and speaker on parenting issues made a list of all the difficult questions parents had been asking him about their teens. He noticed that of all the issues that are bothering parents, the number one concern is what to do about bad friends. This question was mentioned more than twice as often as the next most common concern.
This educator then did a very interesting experiment. At the time he was working with a number of troubled teens. Many of these teens were estranged from their families. Some of them had resolved their difficulties and were already in the process of making peace with their parents.
He asked these teenagers, “What should I tell parents so that their children won’t have the problems you are having.”
He asked their advice on a number of issues that parents were finding difficult. In most cases, these teens had good suggestions. However, when he asked them what to do about the number one issue that was troubling parents about their teens, none of them had anything to say.
He then asked these teens what it was that got them in trouble in the first place. The number one answer was bad friends.
So the number one issue that worries parents about their teens is bad friends. The number one cause of teens getting into trouble is bad friends. And the answer that these teens gave as to how to help parents deal with this issue was, “There is nothing parents can do.”
One reason that parents can’t separate their child from a bad friend is that the friend often has a stronger relationship. When a child is young, his parents are the major influence in his life. As children enter adolescence a change occurs. A natural part of growing up is breaking away from parents and making bonds with peers. This is normal. If the parent child bond is healthy, children will eventually renew their ties with their parents. This happens in the late teens or early twenties. But throughout most of adolescence, a normal child is closer to his friends than his family.
A second reason parents find it so difficult to separate their teens from bad friends is that to put it simply you can’t take away what you can’t replace. Parents cannot replace their child’s friends.
What You Can Do
Do Not Attack Your Child’s Friends
If your child is running in a bad crowd, your hold on him is loose or non-existent. The last thing you should do is to acquire an enemy. If you make a personal attack on your child’s friend that is exactly what you are going to get, a sworn enemy. This enemy will now be out to get you and he very likely have more influence on your child than you.
It will not help to tell your child not to tell this friend. If you trash your child’s friend, this person will know about it minutes to hours after the words leave your mouth. You will have made an enemy for life, at a time when you need every ally that you can get.
This does not mean you cannot criticize the behavior. It is fair and reasonable to tell your child that you object to the kinds of things his friend is doing. However, don’t make it a personal attack. Once you do that, you place yourself in a battle that you are almost certain to lose.
As part of growing up, your child is trying to break away from you and forge his own path in life. This is normal. However, this need to break away only involves you. It does not involve other adults. This gives you an opportunity to indirectly influence your child.
You should try to find an adult or a responsible older teen that can foster a relationship with your child. It can be a member of your extended family or someone in your community. You can have this person keep contact with your child and try to direct him whenever possible.
If your child is still young, you should take the opportunity to try to set up a relationship with someone older while you still have influence. I personally have set up several adults for each of my teenage children. These are people my children respect and, though I have not needed them yet, I know that I can rely on them if things ever turn sour.
Here is an important point to remember. If your child is confiding is a responsible adult, then you must be careful not to pressure your this person to reveal what is being discussed. You have the right to know some general answers like if things are okay or if your child is going through a rough time. But do not press for information. You might be causing your child huge problems.
Get to Know Your Child’s Friends
This is very bold advice, but it usually works well. You should get to know your child’s friends personally. A number of good things may come out of this.
You may find out that the children with whom your child associates are really not as bad as your initial impression. The teen years are hard on everyone. All children have difficulty. It is very possible you might find that your child’s friends are basically good kids who are going through tough times.
Here is how you can do it. Pick an event, like your child’s birthday or the end of the school year or some other special occasion. Tell your child that you want to take him and four or five of his friends out to dinner to celebrate. Take them to a restaurant. If you are going to be embarrassed by being seen with them, take them somewhere away from your home. If you live in Brooklyn, take them to a restaurant in Queens. If you live on the Boston North Shore take them to a restaurant on the South Shore. You don’t have to embarrass yourself, but you should be subtle about it. Your child shouldn’t be able to figure out that the reason you are driving 20 miles away from your house is that you would rather be dead than be caught seen with his friends.
Here is what you will gain:
1. You might find that you misjudged these children.
2. You will be giving your child the messages that since they are his friends, you welcome them.
3. You will be giving your child’s friends the same message. Depending upon their own personal situation you may be the only adult in their lives that are treating them as people.
4. You will be acquiring four or five allies who are in a very strong position to help you at a time when you need it most.
The Advantage of Having Your Child’s Friends as Allies
The first thing that you need to know is that children have a very strong sense of right and wrong. They may be doing the wrong thing, but they are well aware of it.
Now, picture this scenario. Your child is out with his friends Saturday night doing what you would rather not know about. It is 11:30 and you get a call on the phone. Your child is having a great time and everyone is still here, can he stay out until 2 am? You remind your child that he has a 12:00 curfew and he has to be home. Your child says a few choice things to you to and slams down the phone.
Now to whom does a teen complain when he is angry with his parents? His friends. So after he hangs up he goes to his friend and starts calling you every name in his somewhat extensive vocabulary. Let’s say that this friend is someone you took out to dinner three weeks ago.
That person might just say to your child, “What’s wrong with you? Your mother is okay. Look, you know she’s right. Why are you giving her such an attitude?” This teen that you just took out to dinner may send your child home before any of the real trouble starts, all because you bought him dinner and treated him like a person.
Now what would have happened if you had trashed this person? Do you think he’d be so quick to take your side? That’s the advantage of making your child’s friends allies instead of enemies.
Your teen is going to pick his friends. There is very little you can do at this age to influence his choices. However, if you approach the problem with wisdom, there are a number of ways you can indirectly influence your child and help him to stay out of trouble.
Anthony Kane, MD is a physician and international lecturer who has been helping parents of children with ADHD and OD Disorder since 2003. Get help with Oppositional Defiant Disorder child behavior and Teen Behavior.