Image: INBETWEEN Magazine
Here's what you can do to ensure your son or daughter has healthy friendships.
The people we hang out with influence who we are and how we are perceived, so when it comes to our kids’ friendships, we want them to make good choices. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. So what should you do if you really can’t stand your teen’s BFF?
When Colette Stevens’* 14-year-old daughter, Sophie, was in her final year of elementary school in Ancaster, Ontario, she befriended a girl who was “too advanced for her age,” in Stevens’ opinion. Stevens, whose relationship with her daughter had always been very open, says that Sophie mentioned to her that the girl was experimenting sexually and encouraging her to do the same.
“It made me very uncomfortable,” says Stevens, “and I could tell Sophie was uncomfortable with it, too.” So she decided to sit down with Sophie and talk about why her friend might be motivated to act in that way.
“We talked about how she might be doing it to feel accepted, to get attention from boys, because of low self-esteem, etc. Then we talked about what Sophie felt she was getting from this friendship. She didn’t have a whole lot to say about that and couldn’t really give me an answer.”
The friendship eventually fizzled out.
TALK IT OUT
Gary Direnfeld, an interaction consultant and social worker from Dundas, Ontario, agrees with Stevens’ approach to talk about the situation with her daughter from the standpoint of curiosity and concern, without rushing to make any ultimatums. But he also stresses that these kinds of open dialogues can only be had if we already have a good relationship with our kids.
“One of the best ways to protect our kids is to have a good relationship with them from the get-go. Parents need to know if their kids’ needs are being met, and the most effective means to this end is through ongoing, open dialogue. Our kids must never be made to feel they are being interrogated because that is what causes communication lines to shut down.”
Stevens believes that by having the conversation with Sophie and not telling her to stay away from her friend, but allowing her to work through her feelings instead, was the right move for her in this situation.
By asking her what she was getting out of the friendship, Direnfeld says, Stevens’ daughter was forced to think about the friendship in terms of reciprocity.
“There needs to be some give and take in relationships. They shouldn’t be lopsided or exploitative, where one person gets their needs met at the expense of the other. Friends should be supportive, reasonable and decent. And kids need to learn to resist inappropriate persuasion and to have a mind of their own.”
That being said, how much is too much when it comes to intervening in your kids’ friendships?
KNOWING YOUR ROLE
“Just because our child is friends with someone we might not have chosen for them doesn’t necessarily mean that they will have a bad influence,” says Direnfeld. “We don’t have to like all our kids’ friends, but we do need to keep our kids safe. That is our role as parents.”
Parents need to be alert to changes in their child’s behaviour, according to Direnfeld. Such changes may include lower grades, problems at school, secretive behaviour and sneaking around, among other things.
“If you are concerned that your child is engaging in risky sexual behaviour, doing drugs, drinking alcohol or skipping school, it is absolutely your right to intervene,” says Direnfeld.
Gilbert, Arizona, resident Caroline Turner Jardine has always been big on having honest, open discussions with her children, but with her son Luke in his mid-teens now, she admits it’s become more difficult to have a say in who he hangs out with.
“I’ve learned that he really doesn’t understand that I’m speaking from a position of experience,” says Turner Jardine.
That’s a language teenagers can’t comprehend. It’s a harsh realization that your kids are less and less influenced by you and more and more influenced by their peers at this age.”
Turner Jardine acknowledges she sometimes feels “helpless” in this regard. But finding ways to encourage her son to seek out new, more appropriate peers has been one of her strategies.
“Luke loves basketball, but I wasn’t too impressed with the kids on his high school basketball team this year,” says Turner Jardine.
“So even though our schedules are crazy and money is tight, my husband and my son put together a YMCA high school basketball team that competed against other high school-age boys. We got to pick the team ourselves and invited boys we thought were a good group. So, basically, we try to make sure Luke is happy by giving him access to his favourite things and allowing our limited influence to be a part of it. Although it is very time-consuming, I think sometimes we have to create opportunities for our kids to have multiple circles of friends—school friends, church friends, sports friends, whatever they may be.”
GET TO KNOW THEIR FAMILIES
Although it becomes harder as your children get older and as friendships migrate online, knowing where your children’s friends come from—that is, who their parents and families are—helps keep communication lines open.
“You can phone up the parents of friends of young teens and introduce yourself,” says Direnfeld. “Tell them ‘Here’s what we do at our house—no alcohol, no smoking in the house—the kids can hang out in the basement with the door open, and every once in a while we might pop our head in and throw them some food.’ This is not about interrogating
or questioning their parenting, but rather being open and transparent about your own parenting.”
“I have tried hard to grab on to the kids that I do like and get to know their families, especially their mothers,” says Turner Jardine. “I have a mother-and-son date coming up with two 16-year-old boys and their moms at a baseball game! We don’t hesitate to text or call each other at any hour of the night if we’re concerned about our boys. We are team parents! We can communicate with each other openly, knowing all we really want is what’s best for our kids,” she adds.
BE A ROLE MODEL
Our own relationships with our spouses and other adults have a big impact on our kids, says Direnfeld. “We are constantly sending our kids signals for what is acceptable in relationships.”
And being a good role model also involves showing empathy.
“We want kids to be discriminating when it comes to the people they choose to bring into their lives,” says Direnfeld. “When kids get in with a bad crowd, it can change their developmental trajectory. Decisions they make can follow them the rest of their lives.”
“In saying that,” Direnfeld adds, “We also want our kids to show compassion. Just because someone is troubled doesn’t mean our kids can’t have a relationship with that person. We want them to grow up to be supportive, empathetic individuals.”
Turner Jardine tries to find the good in all of her son’s friends, while at the same time reminding Luke of the morals and values on which he was raised. “I think teenagers need as much love as we can give them,” she says. “I don’t mind being a second mom to these boys.”
“Teenagers are smarter than we give them credit for,” adds Turner Jardine. “I think if you’re close with your kids they will know what kinds of friends you hope they will choose and, more importantly, why. Maintaining that closeness during the teenage years can be a struggle, but if you were able to instill in your children the importance of surrounding themselves with good people when they were younger and still listening to you, hopefully some of that will stick.”
Direnfeld can’t stress enough the merits of having an open door policy when it comes to your kids—making sure they feel comfortable to talk to you about anything without fear of being punished or judged.
“If we don’t have a good relationship with our kids, they will go looking for love in all the wrong places.”