Few parents of adolescents escape the dilemma of the "undesirable friend." Into your child's life and your home comes the teen who sends your warning antenna whirling: the underachiever with slacker ways, the sexualized girl with the skimpy wardrobe, the foul-mouthed guy with rude manners, "that" friend you worry will lead your child astray.
Propelled by protective instincts, most parents weigh in with opinions, advice and cautionary tales to circumvent trouble they see coming from a mile away. Though parents' instincts may turn out to be correct, the biggest problem with this approach is that it's almost always ineffective and has fairly predictable downsides.
Friendship choices during the teen years are wrapped into the rich and complicated process of forming an identity of one's own -- a process that can put parents through the wringer. Developmental psychologists have observed how friendships change around age 11 or 12. In the "good old days" when mom and dad had lots of say about playmates, friends were largely about common interests: "Sam plays soccer, I play soccer, Sam and I are friends."
During adolescence, common interests give way to attraction based more on personality traits. Friendship choices become a mirror of a teen's own feelings, tastes, desires and preferences, both lasting and at the moment. Parents should always ask themselves what their teen's draw to someone represents, since there are almost always reasons. It should be no surprise when teens react defensively to criticism of friends. To say that they take it personally is exactly the point: Badmouth my friend, badmouth me. Pointing out a friend's flaws may not only backfire, but -- in shades of Romeo and Juliet -- is likely to reinforce loyalty.
Another key point is that parents almost always criticize based on their fears, before there's clear evidence of bad influence. Parents who jump in based on anxiety or concern, without known data, injure their credibility and risk being labeled as "clueless." Overreaction also weakens parents' opportunities to influence the situation if and when true problems arise, because they have already overplayed their hand.
Also keep in mind that a parent's role isn't just to protect. Even if a friendship goes south, parents don't want to rob teens of a learning experience that may be negative in the moment but enriching in the long run.
Here are some guidelines for parents to follow when they fail to mix with their teen's friends:
- Brace yourself for fluctuating friendships and changes in your teen with a new school year. September is prime season for teens to assume the ways of a new group that they want to impress and join.
- Since criticizing friends rarely works, bide your time and say nothing until you have adequate proof of your suspicions and a reasonable chance of getting through.
- When risky business occurs, let teens take the lead in expressing how friends impacted their actions. Parents can reinforce teens' insights and praise their wise deductions.
- When concrete evidence mounts, it's OK to ban a friend for a reasonable period of time. Even then, stay courteous with a comment like, "You rub off on each other in a way that makes trouble."
- If your teen gets burned by a friend, assume ambivalence. Overstating opposition usually causes teens to leap to the defense.
- If parents believe their child is settling into the wrong group, encourage activities with other kinds of peers.
- When your son or daughter corners you regarding how you feel about a friend, don't lie. Express your concern respectfully with a guarded comment like, "I have seen that Jake takes risks and, of course, it makes me worry that you'll get in over your head."
- Although parents can't control friendship choices, they can still choose which friends they're willing to take places, though they must be willing to back up preferences non-judgmentally.
- Keep in mind that sometimes parents misjudge young people. A teen may have a heart of gold but has just been unlucky enough to be stuck with a bad reputation.™
Laura Kastner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D., a writer, are the authors of The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life (Three Rivers Press, 2002) and The Seven-Year Stretch: How Families Work Together to Grow Through Adolescence (Houghton Mifflin, 1997).