Liam and his parents always had a close relationship. Their family spent lots of time together traveling, playing sports and watching Liam’s soccer games. For most of his childhood Liam’s friendships were primarily friends from his soccer team. His parents knew their parents and loved having the boys over for sleepovers or just to hang out and play sports or video games. When Liam entered high school, his parents just assumed this pattern would continue until one day Liam brought home a new group of friends. These kids seemed different in every way. Their clothes, music, hairstyle and smell were all something to be desired and they lacked the politeness and friendliness of Liam’s other friends. Liam’s mom even overheard Liam mention that two of the boys skipped school a lot. Worried about the influence Liam’s new friends could have over their son, Liam’s parents banned them from their home and firmly stated that he is not to hang out with “those kids”.
When children are young their strongest influence is their parents. Kids look up to their parents, want to spend time with them and copy what they do. During adolescence a major shift occurs and peers take on a much more significant role in a teen’s life. This shift can feel scary to parents who worry about their child’s friendship choices, peer pressure and the possibility that their child may fall into “the wrong crowd”. Like Liam’s parents, many parents develop the urge to control their children’s friendships or fall into the negative pattern of lecturing their child about healthy relationships and their concern about bad influences. Unfortunately not only are these strategies ineffective, but they can result in more fighting and mistrust between you and your child and actually lead your teen to identify even more with the peer group about which you are concerned.
As a parent, we know that observing your teen with friends can be very gratifying. At the same time, listening to the news and hearing about the types of trouble that teens get into can be distressing. We’d like to be able to exert control over this aspect of our teen’s life, but we just can’t anymore.
Below are 10 tips that we hope will help you get a better handle on this primary aspect of your teen’s life and increase your influence as well.
- Use it as an opportunity to understand your teen. Teens choose friends that reflect their own feelings and values at any given time. This can be very hard to accept as a parent, but if your teen is spending a lot of time with friends who are struggling and making bad decisions, it’s likely that your child is also struggling in some ways.
- Take advantage of the opportunity to connect with your teen. Your teen will appreciate your making an effort with their friends. When they feel like you genuinely care, they’ll be more likely to be open and honest with you when they’re having problems and need help.
- Consider that it may just be a phase that your child will grow out of. It can be helpful to remember that throughout adolescence, teens are trying on a variety of identities and often their friends reflect this process. As painful as it may be to stand back and watch, your child will benefit much more by discovering on their own that some people can be jerks or untrustworthy.
- Don’t judge your child’s friends by their appearance. Teens are especially sensitive to parents making superficial judgments of their friends. Not only does this build resentment and anger in teens, it also undermines your credibility as a parent.
- Respect social networking and technology but set boundaries. Facebook, texting, instant messaging and other ways of socializing with technology are essential methods that most teens use to stay connected. While these are wonderful tools for staying in touch it can also get out of hand quickly. Many teens need some boundaries and limits around school, bedtime and family time.
- It’s ok to set limits around friendships that are unsafe. For example, drawing a line with a friend who has brought drugs or alcohol into your home, committed a serious crime or has dropped out of school may be appropriate. Making this kind of decision with an important person in your teen’s life should never be taken lightly. Be thoughtful about it and avoid making this decision out of anger or as a punishment.
- Make your house a teen friendly zone. Make your home inviting for your child’s friends by doing things like keeping the fridge stocked up and doing your best to carve out a space for them to be by themselves while still maintaining some supervision. Get to know them and their parents as much as possible.
- Treat your child’s friends like family. Friends are like family to teens and it’s important that you treat them as such. By doing things like inviting them to stay for dinner (with their parent’s permission), expecting them to clean up after themselves, or asking them about school and their family you send a message to your child that you care about their friends. This will significantly increase the degree of trust and respect that your teen has for you.
- Be aware of how you model friendships. Do you have healthy relationships in your own life? Do you get caught up in gossip and judging others? Are your friendships based on trust, honesty and respect? Does your child know and trust your close friends?
- If your teen doesn’t have friends, take it seriously. Don’t buy into faulty thinking from your teen that “everyone at school is annoying” or thinking your teen is just an introverted kid, or they’re too busy, or anything else like that. All teens want friends. If they don’t have any, it could be that they’re depressed, fearing rejection, lacking social skills, or are struggling with other important issues that must be addressed.
Friendship and peers are powerful forces in a teen’s life. It’s common for a child’s peer group to change when they reach middle or high school. If you find your teen being drawn towards negative peers it’s essential that you avoid the temptation to judge their friends or lecture your child. By staying patient and engaged with your child you significantly increase the chances that their poor choice in friends will become a short but important phase in their life that will help them develop a healthier sense of what it means to have and be a good friend. This type of lesson will prove to be much more valuable than any lecture or talk.