Does Your Child Have "Toxic" Friends?
6 Ways to Deal with the Wrong Crowd
by James Lehman, MSW
I've worked with a lot of children and teens with behavior problems over the years—and believe me, very few of their parents liked their friends. It's like the national anthem of parents: “It's not my child; it’s those kids he hangs out with!” When I hear that, I always say, “Maybe that's so, but the reason he hangs out with that group is because he's similar to them. And just like you're saying, ‘It's those other kids he hangs out with,’ those other kids’ parents are saying it's your kid who’s the problem.”
While your goal as a parent is to keep your child protected and safe, your child’s goal is to be with people who like him
The old axiom is true, birds of a feather do flock together—and that’s especially accurate in adolescence. In fact, one of the main needs of their particular developmental level is to belong to a group and be accepted. That's why teenagers are always so worried about how they look and act. And once they find a mode of dress, a type of music and a group of kids who accept them, it’s very hard for parents to break through.
The first thing you have to realize is that you can't pick your child’s friends. In fact, if you criticize their friends, you will see them react very strongly. That’s because they're developmentally bound to defend their chosen peer group. When kids enter adolescence, they employ a way of looking at the world in which their friends are more important than anybody else. You'll often hear them say, “You just don't understand.” And another part of that mindset is, “Nobody understands me but my friends.” So if you criticize or attack their friends, you're really just making the relationship stronger. And no matter how you feel about your child’s friends, I don’t believe this direct kind of attack is effective. In fact, there are kids who like the fact that their parents don't approve of their friends; it adds to the flavor of the relationship. Understand that while your goal as a parent is to keep your child protected and safe, your child’s goal is to be with people who like him.
When You Don’t Like Your Child’s Friends:
6 Ways to Deal with the “Wrong Crowd”
- Try to Avoid Repeated Criticisms of Their Friends
- Make Clear Statements about Behavior
- Use Structure
- Going Out on Friday Night is Not a “Right”
- Talk to Them about Mean Friends
I personally don't think repeatedly criticizing your child’s friends or pointing out that they're bad is going to be a successful strategy. Again, adolescents are developmentally at a place in their life where they're defending their friends. And so it's very difficult for a parent to turn around and say, “Your friends are no good,” and expect to have a conversation. Your child’s natural urge is going to be to protect his or her friends, whether or not they know you're right. Realize that criticizing your child‘s friends is like criticizing an aspect of your child. It's going to meet with the same resistance and hostility—even if what you're saying is true. And all it will do is further alienate your child from you.
I think if you don't like your kid's friends, the most effective thing to do is state: “I don't like the way they behave.” That's the first thing you can say. “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 awhile. Be sure to simply state the facts. State what you don't like about their friends’ behavior. You're not judging them. 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 on a level we can see. By that I mean talk about things that are 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.” Make those observations and keep it simple and direct.
I think that structure can be very helpful when dealing with your child's friends. In other words, if you don't like the kids he's hanging out with, then don't let him go out on school nights. Try to have more control over where he goes and what he does. If he says he's going to the football game and then you catch him down at the mall with those friends, that's his choice. He chose to go some place which you didn’t know about and there should be consequences.
If you know your child’s friends are engaging in behavior that isn’t in line with your values, then I think you should set limits on how much time they spend with those kids—or whether or not your child can see them at all. If his friends are breaking the law or doing things that are unhealthy, you can say, “Maybe they're your friends, but I'm not going to let you hang out with them.” With a lot of adolescents, defiance becomes a big problem. Many of the kids I dealt with would climb out their windows when told they couldn’t go out. But again, you set the standard as the parent; you set the expectation. If your child doesn't meet it, at least he knew there were standards and expectations to begin with, and now he will have to face the consequences and be held accountable for his actions.
All of a sudden, kids hit a certain age when they think they have the right to go out. Well, I don't think so. I think kids have to behave responsibly in order to earn the right to go out. And you can say, “I'll let you go out if you show me that you're trustworthy.” Behaving responsibly does not include hanging out with kids who use drugs and drink—that’s all there is to it. I also think going out on Friday or Saturday night is not a right; it has to be something that is discussed every week. My son used to come to me and say, “Listen, Saturday night we're all going up to the lake. Is it okay if I go?” Saturday night was not his automatic night out. Instead, that was negotiated each week, and the answer wasn’t always “Sure.” As a parent, I think you should be saying, “What are your plans this weekend?” Your child should know that they have to have their plans Okayed by you first, and that they have to behave responsibly in order to earn the privilege of going out.
What if your child is hanging out with kids who treat him badly? Know that he's hanging out with them for a reason. He's probably afraid of them so he’s trying to become one of them. When kids are afraid of bullies and other kids, one of the options they have is to join the group and become a bully. Because even though these kids are mean to him, there is a sense of safety there. The deal they make is, “I'll let you be mean to me and tease me, but you won't abuse me or beat me up or take my lunch money any more.”
But I think if your kid's friends are mean to him, the kind of questions you want to ask are, “What are you trying to accomplish by letting people treat you this way? What are you getting out of that?”
Try to have an adult conversation with your child. You can say, “Listen, you have choices; you don't have to hang out with these kids. You don't have to be a victim. I can get you help with this.”
When Your Child Hangs Out with Kids Who Use Drugs
As we’ve said, there are several reasons why people gravitate toward different groups. If you have a kid with behavior problems, you will often find that they are attracted to friends who also have behavior problems. If you have a child who doesn't do his homework and fails in school and is resistant and mouthy, he's going to gravitate toward friends who won't hold him accountable for that kind of behavior. Instead, his chosen peer group will reward and reinforce what he’s doing. In order to belong, he just has to do what the other kids are doing. That might be any number of things, including shoplifting, defacing property, using drugs or drinking.
It’s a simple fact that kids who use drugs hang out with other kids who use drugs. These kids are not likely to ask, “Did you get an A in science?” If these are your child’s friends, realize that he is almost certainly engaging in the same type of risky behavior—even if he says he’s not. Let me be clear: there is no other reason for your child to pal around with kids who do drugs. If he says, “Well, they do it, but they don't do it around me,” that's a lot of nonsense. It’s just something kids tell you to throw you off track; and sadly, it’s often a far cry from the truth.
Some parents say things to their kids like, “Well, you shouldn't smoke pot, but everybody experiments with it.” Don’t give your child that cop-out line.
Make it very clear: “No matter what you see your friends or other kids doing, there is no using drugs. That's our expectation of you.”
We were really clear on that with our son. I personally feel parents cop out when they say, “You shouldn’t do it, but everybody else does it.” Your kid is not equipped to make decisions about drugs. Drugs get you high, drugs take away stress, drugs take away feelings of panic or crisis, and that means something. Once kids start using drugs, it's easy for teens to become dependent on them because adolescents always feel stress. Drugs can become a dangerous way for them to get relief from all their fears and anxieties. Make no bones about it, drug rehabs today are filled with teenagers whose parents said, “They’re only experimenting” when their kids first started using.
There are important problem-solving tasks adolescents have to work through in order to prepare for adult living. Also, there is knowledge about the world that teenagers have to learn in order to make healthy choices and keep themselves safe. The use of drugs and alcohol in adolescence inhibits the possibility of these milestones being reached. So I don’t think parents should turn a blind eye or make excuses. Many times, parents are afraid to feel powerless, so they'll make those kinds of statements instead of just telling their child “no.” But you need to hold your child accountable and tell them right from wrong; that's simply the way it has to be. You have to be very clear and take a stand: “No drinking. No drugs.”
When Your Child’s Behavior Changes
If your child starts changing as a result of the kids he hangs out with, use a structured parenting routine: set limits and manage their time. I also think you should expect that they're going to change during adolescence. They're going to find a group with whom they're going to identify. When you see an adolescent, believe me, he's probably rebelling against adult authority in a lot of little ways. And while your child may go to school and be fairly responsible, you’ll find that through music, through clothes, through a myriad of different things, it's a rebellious time in his life.
I think it’s important for parents to understand that rebelliousness has a developmental function. Teenagers are individuating from their parents; what I mean by that is they're becoming individuals and separating from their parents. This feels as natural to adolescents as water feels to a duck. Saying that, it's often a very hard thing for parents to accept and manage.
Here’s the bottom line: kids are going to make mistakes and they're going to make bad choices. The best we can do is guide them, set limits, project our view of what's right and wrong in the world and hold them accountable
Does Your Child Have "Toxic" Friends? 6 Ways to Deal with the Wrong Crowd reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com
James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. He has worked with troubled teens and children for three decades. James holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University. For more information, visit www.thetotaltransformation.com.