It’s much easier to monitor your child’s friendships when they’re attending primary school. At that age they’re still far more likely to tell you more about their mates and, for the most part, they still really care about what you think. When combined with their reliance on you getting them to where they want to go as well as stronger parent networks that exist in the primary years, it becomes a lot easier for you to keep your child away from other children that you simply don’t like that much.
Finding your teen beginning to hang out with a new group of friends can happen at anytime and be due to a range of reasons, most of which parents have little or no control over, but it is when they make the transition to secondary school that you’re likely to see the biggest change. This is a time that requires all students (whether new to the school or not) to establish new peer groups. A significant number of new students enter the year group and there’s a change in the group dynamics.
As students try to find their friendship group, many will likely experience rejection to some degree. Not everyone is going to be popular and this can be difficult for anyone, let alone a young person entering adolescence who is beginning to struggle with a range of physical and emotional changes. In addition, as they bounce from group to group, trying to find which one will accept them and where they actually fit, there is the potential for them to find themselves being accepted by a peer group that could end up being problematic. Of course, this doesn’t just happen when they first hit high school. Friendship groups go through many changes during adolescence and although you may try your best, it can become difficult to keep track of who your teen is actually hanging out with at any point in time. Unfortunately, when you do find out more about their friends you’re not always going to like what you see …
Before we look at how best to respond to this issue it can be useful to try to work out exactly why you feel the way you do. When I ask parents to articulate exactly what it is about their teen’s friends that they don’t like or feel uncomfortable about, it usually boils down to one or more of the following:
- they have issues with the way they believe the child is being parented
- the new friend doesn’t appear to have the same ‘values’ as they believe their child has – when pushed and asked exactly what this means, parents usually comment on the way their teen’s friends look and act, e.g., the clothes they wear, the way they talk to adults. “That’s just not how my son was brought up” was how one mother described it …
- they have a ‘reputation’ and are likely to be a ‘bad influence’ – there is a fear that their son or daughter will run afoul due to ‘guilt by association’
- there’s just something about them – some parents are unable to explain why they have a problem with particular friends, claiming there was no single incident or behaviour that led them to feel the way they did. As one Mum said to me – “Call it mother’s intuition, I just didn’t like this kid. It was a gut instinct – I’ve never felt that way about any of his other friends.”
- everything was fine before they came onto the scene – things aren’t going well and parents are desperate to find a simple answer to what is likely to be a highly complex problem. Could this new friendship have caused the issues? Of course it could, but why did the child seek new friendships? Are there other things happening that could be playing a role?
Once you’ve established (or at least made an effort to understand) why you have a problem with one or more of your teen’s friends, what should you do about it?
The most important thing a parent can do during adolescence (and beyond) is to ensure they have a positive relationship with their teen and maintain good lines of communication at all times. The best way to destroy this is by attacking their friends. Peers become increasingly important at this time and when you insult their friends it should come as no surprise that your child will feel like you are insulting them. Now this doesn’t mean that you should ignore your gut – as I always say, if it doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t – but parents need to tread carefully. Teens are notorious for disagreeing with their parents just for the sake of it – having a friend that their parent doesn’t like, no matter what the reason, can be seen as a badge of honour by some young people.
So with that in mind, here are five simple things parents can do around potential problematic friendships that also maintain good communication and build a better parent-child relationship:
Make your place the place they want to hang out: This does not mean try to be the ‘cool’ parent who allows their teen and their friends to do what they want and decides to make their home a ‘safe space’ for drinking, smoking or whatever. It’s all about encouraging your child to bring their friends around, ensuring them that you will be respectful of their space but at the same time they must be aware of your family rules and boundaries. As the saying goes ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ – having your teen’s friends in your home allows you to observe what’s going on and find out a little more about them and what is driving the relationship.
Stop, look and listen: Take the time to really watch is going on with your teen and, if you can make your home a place they want to socialise, watch their interactions with others, particularly the friend (or friends) you don’t like. Sitting back and watching the dynamics within your child’s friendship group without engaging can provide some valuable insights into exactly what is going on. Parents have told me that driving a group of teens home from a party or gathering provides a great opportunity to find out what is going on in a friendship group – put your hands on the steering wheel, keep your eyes on the road and let the conversation start around you. Walking into a room offering snacks or refills of drinks to your teen and their friends without making too big a deal of it can also lead you to overhearing what is really going on. The trick here is that this is all about observing, not engaging – find out all you can about what’s happening – the response can happen a little later.
Remember, it’s not about you: You should have already worked out exactly what it is about your child’s friend that you don’t like and taking a little bit of time to have them in your home, observe them and their relationship with your son or daughter can allow you to either confirm or quash your concerns. Whatever you find out, you need to remember that who your teen decides to have as a friend is their decision, it’s not about you and what you want, it’s their choice. You may not feel comfortable with their choice but unless you believe their health and safety is at risk in any way there is very little you can (or should) do about it. Hopefully you have brought them up to make good choices and, although it may be incredibly difficult, it’s important to show them that you trust them to make healthy decisions when it comes to choosing friends. Fingers crossed, this will be one of those friendships that doesn’t last too long – you never know your luck!
Pick your battles: When it comes to your teen’s choice of friends know when to hold back and bite your tongue and also know when is the right time to intervene. Trying to control who your teen hangs out with every minute of the day is going to be extremely tiring, cause significant damage to the relationship you have with your child and, in reality, is nigh on impossible. Don’t fight about the little things (e.g., when the friend’s name is mentioned, try not to make make unnecessary comments about how you feel about them) and certainly don’t waste effort on things you simply can’t control (e.g., what happens when your son or daughter is away from home). If you’re going to raise your concerns or attempt to put restrictions on the friendship make sure you’re fully prepared and have really thought through the consequences.
If you have concerns, think carefully about what to say and when and how to say it: This has to be handled extremely carefully and respectfully but, if it doesn’t feel right, it most probably isn’t and you need to let your teen know how you feel. That doesn’t mean you should turn around to your child and say “I don’t like your friend and I don’t want you seeing them anymore!” Trying to ban your child from seeing certain people is not going to be helpful (and not possible in most cases) but talking through your concerns and working through possible solutions is important.
The most important point here is that whatever concerns you have, ensure you focus on the impact you believe the friendship is having on your child, not rave on about all the things you don’t like about their friend or friends. It can be difficult to find the right time to have this conversation but you certainly don’t want to try and raise your concerns in the midst of an argument regarding your teen’s behaviour – that’s never going to work. The key to getting this conversation right is treating your teen as a young adult, i.e., respecting their choices when it comes to friendships but asking them to show you the same respect and listening to your concerns.
It is impossible to control who your child is or isn’t friends with – if you try it is highly likely to cause all involved a great deal of grief. The good news for parents is that shared interests, values and attitudes and similar circumstances and upbringings are some of the most likely reasons that young people gravitate towards each other and form close connections and friendships. Unfortunately, during the adolescent years relationships can fracture resulting in one or more of the group set adrift and alone. Finding another group of friends or just one person that accepts them is so important. In most cases, teens choose new friends for a reason (e.g., the person makes them laugh, they stood up for them when no-one else did, or they were the other ones that didn’t quite fit in) but most parents are completely unaware of these circumstances. Of course, if you believe that a friendship with a particular person or persons is putting your child’s health or safety at risk, or they’re in any danger whatsoever, you have no choice but to intervene but if you can, try to trust your teen’s choices in this area – it may be a challenge but it’s likely to be well worth it.