Your child’s friends and peer group wield tremendous influence: they are a major contributor to the behavioral choices your child makes.
As a therapist in the addiction field, I’ve seen this trend firsthand: Many clients with substance use disorders first dabbled in drugs or alcohol as teenagers because a friend or acquaintance suggested it.
For parents, the prospect that your child’s friends could lead them into addiction or other dangers is both real and scary. Two parenting dilemmas can make this prospect even scarier:
- Not knowing whether your child’s friends are truly a bad influence or are just going through a normal phase of acting out
- Uncertainty about how to talk with your child about your concerns
Things to watch for
So, how do you know whether your child is hanging around a wrong crowd or just going through a relatively normal phase of adolescent development that may involve experimentation, questioning authority and/or some acting out? Watch for the following signs:
- Drastic changes in mood, weight, appearance and/or personal hygiene
- Disciplinary troubles at school or unexplained absences
- Isolationist tendencies
- Disregard of curfew and other family rules and responsibilities
- Academic issues and struggles with schoolwork
- A loss of interest in former hobbies
- Troubles with the law
- Tangible evidence (alcohol on the breath, a hidden cigarette stash, etc.) that your child may be engaging in potentially risky behaviors
- Spending way too much time on social networking sites
With respect to this last indicator, an September 2017 article in "The Atlantic" documented an alarming correlation between quantity of time spent on Facebook and other social networking sites and rates of teen depression and suicide. (Depression is a major risk factor for teen substance abuse, according to research summarized in "The New York Times.") For example, avid users — teens who spent three hours or more daily on their smartphones and Facebook and other networking sites — reportedly raised their risks of suicide by 35 percent, according to "The Atlantic" article.
How to talk to your child
If one or more of the above signs confirms that your child is indeed hanging around the wrong crowd and falling prey to negative peer pressures, the better part of parenting wisdom is to have an honest, heart-to-heart chat with your child. The following tips can help:
- Find the right time to talk. You may have already established a regular daily routine that provides some space for one-on-one connection with your child, without the constraints of time or an agenda. If you have this routine in place, this space in your day may work best for a candid conversation. And if you don’t, create a time that does.
- Reference your child’s strengths, goals and values. If you can, try to recall the times when your child did something that made you feel proud or connected to them. Maybe they volunteered to help their sibling out with homework or gave you a big hug when you were feeling down. Or maybe you heard them share a goal or personal value that they have since forgotten. Draw your child’s attention to the things you love about them.
- Keep it positive. Although it may sound counter-intuitive, shelve the negative criticism as much as possible. A warm and loving tone is more likely to be heard. If you have to use imperatives — in some cases, this will be unavoidable — try to reframe them as affirmative commands.
- Avoid personalizing your concerns when possible. Try to keep the focus on particular behaviors and whether these are serving your child well, as opposed to on specific people. It may be tempting to say that you don’t like your child hanging around Tom or Lucy because they are so disrespectful, but that may trigger defensiveness or cause your child to tune you out. Instead, try something like, “I’ve noticed that lately when you’re hanging out with Tom/Lucy, you tend to make fun of other people and say mean things.” The particular relationship dynamics and resulting negative behaviors are the key concern, anyway.
- Establish clear standards for behavior. Clear boundaries involve two things: clearly stating what the expectations are for living under the same roof as a family and the delivery of natural consequences if/when these boundaries are violated. An example of a natural consequence: If your child gets a weekly allowance for cleaning their room, then they lose their allowance or have to pay you for not cleaning their room.
- Offer positive incentives. You can invite your child’s feedback about what sorts of activities or social events interest them — then support that involvement. Offer them a positive reward and incentive for coming up with a personal goal and then meeting it. In the process, your child will be forming new and hopefully healthier friendships that you can encourage.