What is the “wrong crowd” exactly? Are these the kids with potty mouths, bad grades or a touch of a wild side? Do they have permissive parents, delinquent siblings or pierced ears? Are you hearing gossip about loose morals, or do you have concrete information about serious infractions?
Let’s face it. We’re all a little nutty when it comes to the primal “mama bear” or “papa bear” impulse to protect our cubs from danger. Although we’d clobber anyone who truly endangered our beloved children, the anxiety centers in our brains frequently trip false alarms.
Your son’s new friend, Tucker, may “sag” his pants, grunt in response to your “hello” and eat out of your refrigerator without asking first. Before you know it (literally), you’ve opened your big mouth and said something like, “That Tucker looks like trouble.” Your son’s reaction? What might have been a fleeting attachment to a little heathen may become more like Velcro.
Maybe you’re right about Tucker. Often, however, parents jump to conclusions about peer pressure. A University of Michigan study on teen friendships (check it out at bit.ly/kejcfi) found that most teens don’t feel pressured by their peers in matters regarding school achievement, drugs or sex. In fact, teens are more likely to pressure each other to do well.
My teen patients give me examples of positive peer influence all the time: the friend who says that abusive talk from a boyfriend should not be tolerated; the friend who advises that slutty clothes at the dance send the wrong message; and the friend who won’t go along with sneaking beers into the sleepover.
Another reason for cooling our heels before jumping to a “wrong crowd” assumption is that tweens and teens identify with their tribe of chums. When parents criticize their children’s friends, they are criticizing their children.
The choice of friends is a reflection of a child’s history, developmental stage, personality and social context. Children are drawn to friends according to their interests, opportunity, comfort zones and taste for novelty.
Watching for ‘danger’ signs
The tween and teen years are filled with risky and worrisome behaviors. No wonder parents are poised to sniff out peers who may lead (or accompany) a child astray. One parent put it this way: “I keep my nose to the ground, investigate more thoroughly if something is amiss and bite when necessary.”
Maybe your seventh-grade daughter wants to hang out with Layla, an underachieving peer who is known as the “queen bee” of the boy-crazy group. Or maybe you’ve heard that your son’s friend Tucker smokes and cuts a lot of school. When your “danger” bell goes off, you should consider what this attraction might reveal about your child, not just the friend. Your concern may be valid, but the strategic question is “How can I be effective in dealing with this situation?”
Speaking up about your concerns is important, but the tricky part is avoiding condemnations of the peers, which would alienate your child from you and shove her or him closer to the alluring friends. Be specific and direct: “Your new friends make me anxious about whether you will be sticking to our rules. My expectation is that you do so.”
You might want to explore your child’s attraction. Ask: “What do you like the best about Layla?” How does Layla make you feel when you are around her?” What do people admire about Layla?”
If you have already bad-mouthed Layla, you’re toast. Your kid will sneer at your efforts to excavate some dirt off of her friend and blow you off. That’s why one of a parent’s best tools is a verbal filter.
Ways to intervene
Taking action to separate your child from the “wrong crowd” should be based on facts or, at least, circumstantial evidence. Depending on the seriousness of the dangers, your intervention may range from raising awareness to warning, to banning. You can take note of and voice concerning patterns: “I notice you swear more when you are with Tucker. I expect it to stop.” You can remind your child of your behavioral standards: “If you can’t manage to obey our rules when you are with Tucker, we’ll restrict access to him.” You can ban contact: “Because you cut school with Tucker, we will not allow you to socialize with him for a month.”
The older the child, the harder it will be to control contact. If your child is very attached to the peer(s) of concern, clamping down on electronic contact will be necessary.
Although a parent’s anxiety about social risks is normal, we all need to remember how much we learned from our own explorations with various people in our lifetimes. Children develop their own social radar by mingling independently and sharpening their awareness without interference.
A heart-to-heart talk is an ideal way to encourage scrutiny about friendship choices. When that fails, we can sniff, track and intervene when necessary.
Laura Kastner, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and co-author, with Jenny Wyatt, Ph.D., of Getting to Calm: Cool-headed strategies for parenting tweens and teens.