Besides parents and family, friends are potentially the biggest influence in a child’s life. When they are little, the balance of influence tips to the parents, and the older they get, the balance may tip towards peers.
When your kids are little, you pretty much have control over who their friends are simply because you choose their environments and you control where they go and who they see. But once they are in middle and high school, you lose that accessibility to their friends. As they hang out in groups, at sports events, parties, etc, you may have no idea who they are befriending, until one day they invited a kid home who raises warning flags in your brain.
At this point, what should you do?
Make your home a desirable place to hang out.
One way to influence your child in a healthy way is to make your home a place where kids can hang out. Offer incentives like food and always make them feel welcome.
Take advantage of this opportunity to get to know your child’s friends. When my kids would bring friends over, I’d take a few minutes to chat with them, showing interest in them and letting them feel Seen. As I went about my work or whatever I was doing, I listened with one ear to their conversations. Knowing your kids’ friends is the first step.
Refrain from criticizing their friends.
Criticizing your child’s friends is not going to be a successful strategy if you don’t approve and would rather your child not hang out with them. Adolescents are likely to defend their friends and take their side against parents.
Criticizing your child‘s friends is will be met with resistance—even if you are speaking the truth. Ultimately, it will only push your child away. Objections should be framed in a deeper conversation with clarity, not just voiced as spontaneous criticisms.
Be clear about what you don’t like.
I like the way Empowering Parents explains this:
I think if you don’t like your kid’s friends, the most effective thing to say is the following:
“I don’t like the way they behave. I don’t like you hanging out with kids who get in trouble, because you get in trouble with them.”
Can you say this every day? No. But you can say it once in a while. Be sure to simply state the facts. State what you don’t like about their friends’ behavior. You’re not judging them, just their behavior. As a parent, I think you want to be a little smooth about that. You could say:
“Look, I’m sure your friends are great to you. But they all smoke pot and they all get into trouble. If you hang out with them, you’re going to get into the same trouble.”
Remember, when we’re having conversations like this with our kids, we want to keep our observations understandable. In other words, talk about things that are clear and recognizable:
“I don’t like that Jackie got arrested for shoplifting. I don’t want you to get arrested for it, too.
I don’t like that your buddies all use drugs because I don’t want you using drugs. I don’t think it’s good for you.”
When you make those types of observations, keep it clear and simple, focusing on the behaviors that you don’t like, not that you don’t like the person as a whole (even if you don’t!)
If you know your child’s friends are doing things that don’t line up with your values, then set limits on how much time they spend, and when and where they see those kids. If you don’t like the kids they are hanging out with, then don’t let them go out on school nights or make the curfew early. Insist on knowing where they are going and who they are going with.
If they say they are going to the movies with friends and then get caught at the mall or at a party with those friends, there should be consequences.
Stress the importance of acting responsibly.
Just because your child reaches a certain age, it does not mean that they have earned the “right” to go out on weekend nights. They must behave responsibly to earn the privilege of going out. There’s nothing wrong with telling them, “You can go out if you show me I can trust you.”
Acting responsibly means not hanging out with kids who use drugs and drink, with kids who lie to their parents about where they are going, or with kids who have a reputation for getting in trouble.
Ask your teens what their weekend plans are. They should know that their plans must be approved by you first and that they must act responsibly to get that privilege.
Talk to them about what true friendship is.
What if your child is hanging out with kids who take advantage of them or treat them meanly? It’s natural for a parent to get defensive and angry, but that is not going to help the child resolve the friendship problem.
Explain to your child what a true friend should look like. If a child is being mean or manipulating them, they are not true friends. Talk to them about why they want to hang out with them and what they are looking for in a friend. Let your child know they have choices: You don’t have to hang out with those kids.
The bottom line when it comes to your child’s friends.
As a parent, you have got to decide if the friends your child chooses are just annoying, or are actually negative influences.
When my son was in high school, he had a friend who I used to call “Eddie Hascall.” You may or may not remember that there was a show on TV called “Leave it to Beaver” and one of the characters was a kid who annoyed the heck out of me because he was a real suck-up to his friend’s parents. My son’s friend was like that and it bugged me, but I knew that he was basically a nice kid and so I swallowed my annoyance.
However, if that same friend was lying to us, and influencing our son to do things that were contrary to our values, we would have had to set some boundaries with that friendship.
The bottom line here is guiding your kids through the process of being picky about their friends. Talk to them about what true friends look like and what kind of influence they should be. Your goal is not to do this job for them as they get older, but to coach them on how to pick their friends wisely.
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