But there were more red flags. Chris was quieter and less open with his parents, and his marks took a nosedive. "He was putting too much emphasis on this one kid who was giving him attention, but not the right kind," says Kara. Things finally came to a head when Kara discovered her son was smoking pot – and planned on selling it with his buddy. "Bad friends" are every parent's worst nightmare, says Michele Borba, author of Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them (Wiley, 2005). Some of the most troubling questions Borba gets from parents involve their kids' less-than-stellar friendships. "What do I do if my daughter has a new friend who may be a bad influence?" "I'm dying every time my son goes to this kid's house. I know there's no parental supervision."
Friendships in early childhood are often dictated by the parent – your four-year-old will play with the tot from preschool whose mom you like, for example. But fast-forward five or six years and the control shifts. Tweens and teens start choosing their own friends on the basis of status, common interests and similar values, as well as personality likenesses – and differences. And whether we like it or not, the opinions of our children's peers often carry more weight than ours, say the experts. This can be particularly tough on parents who are used to controlling every aspect of their child's lives, says Borba.
Sooner or later your child is going to buddy up with someone whose values and upbringing don't match your own. Here are 11 steps to help you navigate this tough parenting dilemma.
Page 1 of 4 – Get the first four tips on what to do if you don't like your child's friends on page 2.1. Never judge a book by its cover. Keep an open mind about your kid's friends. "They may have piercings and tattoos, but that doesn't mean they're bad kids. Likewise, the kids who are fresh-faced and well-spoken may be up to trouble," says Ann Douglas, a parenting expert and author who lives in Peterborough, Ont. So avoid dwelling on external things such as clothing, hairstyles and taste in music. Experts agree that while friends often exert a lot of influence on how your kid dresses or talks, his or her core values are much more strongly shaped by what goes on at home.
2. Don't attack your child's friends. Nothing will start an argument faster than suggesting that your child's friends are not good enough, says psychologist Scott Wooding in his book Rage, Rebellion and Rudeness: Parenting Teenagers in the New Millennium (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2005). "They really need their friends at this stage in their lives, and criticizing the friends is seen by teens as being the same as criticizing them," he says.
3. Don't forbid the friendship. "If you try to tell your child who not to be friends with, you can bet you have just picked your child's new best friend, even if that friendship happens entirely behind your back," says Douglas. Tweens and teens have a tendency to dig in their heels when they're given an ultimatum, either out of loyalty to the friend or resentment at being told what to do.
Many parents feel they need to manage their children's choice of friends out of a sense that they're losing control, but that's not doing your kids any favours in the long run, says Karyn Gordon, author of Dr. Karyn's Guide to the Teen Years (Collins, 2008). "You want your children to be able to make decisions on their own."
When Sally Duke's* 10-year-old daughter started getting into trouble at school under the influence of a new friend, her mother didn't try to end the relationship. "I realize my daughter is going to come into contact with people like this at every age and stage of her life," says the Toronto mom of three. "And she has to acquire coping skills, as opposed to me saying, ‘You can't play with her anymore.'"
When her daughter broke the rules, she was grounded, and Sally spent time talking with her about the friendship. "I'd say, 'You're a smart girl and I don't understand how this friendship works. I don't think this is how friends are supposed to be.'" Gordon applauds Duke's approach. "Not only does it raise self-esteem and develop critical thinking skills," she says, "it also helps kids deal with peer pressure. Any child who is used to making decisions for herself will not be as easily led by others."
4. Put out the welcome mat. Make sure your house is kid-friendly, advises Douglas. When friends drop by to pick up your teen, spend a few minutes getting to know them. And if you have the time to coach your child's soccer team or help out at a school dance, do it.
Page 2 of 4 – Find out what rules to set out for your teenagers to follow on page 3.5. Have clear rules in place. Make sure your child knows your family rules and values. For example, "You can only go to parties if the parents are there to supervise." Be as clear and consistent as you can – in both words and actions – about what's acceptable and what's not. Your kids should also know the consequences for breaking those rules.
6. Set limits. If you're just not comfortable with your child's friend, set some rules about where and how they can interact. Marie Smith,* a Dartmouth, N.S., mother of three teens, had concerns about her daughter Cindy's* friend. "This girl was a lot more worldly and had a lot more freedom than Cindy. The rules in her house were very different from the rules in ours." The solution? Marie told her daughter that any sleep-overs would be at their house – not her friend's.
7. Find the attraction. Parents often don't like their children's friends without realizing that kids choose friends for specific reasons, says Gordon. "Ask yourself, Why is my child attracted to this particular kid?" Is she lonely? Did her group just dump her? Is this person exciting to be around? Learn how to ask the right questions in a curious, nonjudgmental way, advises Gordon. For example, "Help me understand what it is about Justin that you're drawn to."
Keep in mind that sometimes kids just "try on" friends for a while to see who fits, then move on. In some cases, they may choose friends with traits they feel they lack and admire. For example, my nine-year-old, who is a tentative child, became close friends for a time with the schoolyard daredevil.
Kids with low self-esteem can be attracted to other kids with low self-esteem or false self-esteem (relying on outward bravado, including arrogance, rudeness and put-downs, to cover up feelings of insecurity), says Gordon. "I worked with one teen on her self-esteem and one day she came into my office and said, ‘You know, it's really weird, but I'm not hanging out with the same people anymore since I've been seeing you.'"
8. Focus on the behaviour. If you notice that your child is suddenly swearing a lot or missing every curfew since he started hanging out with a particular friend, focus on dealing with your son's behaviour rather than dissing the friend, says Douglas. And if you're consistent about disciplining your son for any rules he and his friend break while the friend is visiting, he may get sick of being in trouble every time his friend comes over and eventually ditch him, says Douglas.
If a so-called buddy always treats your child badly, try to help her realize that maybe she doesn't have a real friend there, adds Douglas. Ask questions like, "Can Susie keep a promise?" "Does she always let you down?" Chris Campbell's 17-year-old daughter, Taylor, had a friend who habitually lied to her. "I'd tell Taylor, 'You have to feel sorry for someone who lies all the time,'" says the Timberlea, N.S., mother of two, hoping to plant a seed that would get her daughter to reconsider the relationship. "She eventually figured out on her own that this girl wasn't very nice and that she didn't want to be friends with someone she couldn't trust."
Page 3 of 4 – Read page 4 to find out what to do when you don't like your teen's girlfriend or boyfriend.
9. Beef up your child's social calendar. If you're discouraging a particular friendship, make it easier for your child to start a new one. Fill his calendar with activities he enjoys – sports, art, volunteering. It will give him a chance to meet new friends outside of school and the neighbourhood. If your son or daughter meets a friend you like, encourage the relationship. Offer to take them to the movies or some other outing, suggests Douglas. "Talk about how great it was and how it worked out so well for everybody – without being over-the-top about it."
10. Offer an escape route. Sometimes a child wants to end a friendship that he knows isn't working but struggles with how to make the break. It's understandable. Even adults have trouble mastering this social skill. Always encourage your child to use you as the scapegoat – "Sorry, my mom says I have to do homework" – if it makes things easier. One mother and her son agreed that he would simply stop being available when his friend called or dropped by. The unwanted friend eventually got the message.
11. Be supportive. "My son was a smart kid with good values, and it killed me that he was falling under the spell of this other kid," says Kara about her son Chris. Kara decided she would show Chris that he has good people in his life who like him for who he is. "I called up everyone I could think of who would be a positive influence – old friends, a cousin who is a computer engineer (Chris likes computers), a nephew who had just started university." Finally, things turned around. Chris no longer sees his old friend. "You have to be so supportive," says Kara. "You can't give up, as heartbreaking as it can be."
What to do when you don't like your teen's girlfriend or boyfriend
Take a deep breath, don't panic and find comfort in the fact that early relationships tend to burn out quickly. Here's how to wait it out.
• "Don't let your dislike of your teen's boyfriend or girlfriend hinder your relationship with your child," says Michele Borba, author of Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them (Wiley, 2005). Make sure your child knows you're always there for him, regardless of whom he's dating.
• Keep the lines of communication open. One Dartmouth, N.S., mother of three teens made a point of never saying a bad word about her daughter's boyfriend, even though she felt he was lazy. "I wanted to keep an open dialogue," she says. "I would ask questions, like, 'What does Adam plan on doing after high school?' I wanted to get my daughter thinking, 'Is this the person I see myself with in five years?'"
• Offer distractions. Make sure your teen stays involved with hobbies and extracurricular activities, and still spends time with family and friends.
*Names have been changed.
This story was originally titled "So You Don't Like Your Child's Friends" in the April 2009 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!
Page 4 of 4