By Maria Russell
Although most adults understand George Washington’s hypothesis that, “It is better to be alone than in bad company,” giving that advice to a tween or adolescent will likely fall on deaf ears since, after all, that is when they begin learning and exerting their independence from their parents. The need to be accepted and to have a feeling of belonging is innate in all human beings, and the old axiom, “Birds of a feather flock together,” is especially true for middle- and high-schoolers.
While parents can’t choose their older children’s friends, they still must do everything they can to protect them and keep them safe. Even though most teens will encourage positive behaviors in one another, the desire to fit in at any cost sometimes supersedes one’s moral judgment. It is common knowledge that the tween and teen years are characterized by risky and worrisome behaviors, and parents would do well to pay attention to who their child befriends.
Knowing where your child goes and what he’s up to when he’s there is the responsibility of every parent. To this end, parents may want to make their house the place where kids want to congregate. A welcoming place to hang out provides the ideal setting to talk to your child’s friends. Learn about these friends; make it a point to ask how them how they’re doing or how school is going, anything. Do your best to get to know them. It’s their hearts and consciences that matter, not their appearances.
Teens and tweens are naturally drawn to those who share their interests, comfort zones and taste for novelty. Before jumping to conclusions about the friend who has bad manners or whose pants sag or who has a potty mouth, consider what this attraction might reveal about your child.
Asking “What do you like best about Colin” or “How do you feel when you’re around him,” may yield valuable newfound insight. Being attracted to someone from an entirely different background may simply be an indication that your child is interested in the world around him.
If a particular friend causes concern, a parent may be tempted to blame the friend, but this is not a good idea. In fact, it’s a bad one. This is the time when friends become more important than anyone else, and children in this age group are naturally bound to defend their chosen peers. It’s simply part of their development.
“Resist the urge to condemn or criticize,” cautions Laura Black, child and family therapist and faculty member at Lindsey Wilson College’s Hopkinsville campus. She goes on to say, “Parents have to be mindful, especially with teenagers, because human nature sometimes is to rebel and rebellion might lead to a closer relationship with that person.”
Instead, be specific and direct. Begin a conversation with something like, “I’m worried about your falling grades” (or that you’re cutting class, or that you’re not hanging out with your other friends, or whatever uncharacteristic behavior you’ve observed) and let your child know that your concern is for him.
“What I try to do,” Black says, “is get the child to think about what the friend is doing to enhance his or her life and, conversely, detract from it. We discuss what friendship means. Oftentimes, I find a child wants to befriend someone deemed ‘bad’ because they themselves want attention or to feel special.”
If such is the case, Black suggests that something else is going on besides poor choices in companionship.
“We need to build up that child’s self-esteem and show them that they don’t need others to have a strong self-identity and to feel good about themselves.”
Openness and honesty in communication go a long way in fostering positive peer relationships and deflecting negative ones.
As you and your child navigate the teen years, your job of parenting is far from done; it’s just different. And while their friends are influential, a parent remains his teen’s first and best teacher. Do your best to keep communications lines open and positive, and stay involved with your child during these formidable years. Be there for your teen, and your teenager should be just fine.
By Maria Russell