Friends are likely the most important priority on a teenager’s agenda. If there’s a choice between an amazing event alone or a boring event with friends, your teen will probably choose the boring event! Many teenagers begin to seek more and more time with their friends at the expense of family time.
Needless to say, this pull away from the family can be difficult for parents and siblings no matter who the friends are. The blow is even worse when the friends your child chooses, demonstrate behaviour that you see as negative or unhealthy.
So how can we help them choose friends that help (not hinder) them to mature in character and action?
Don’t label your teenager’s friends
When your child is hanging out with someone you see affecting their character and actions (ie. disrespect and physical harm), you need to be careful about how you approach the situation. Friendships are often quite temporary during. Children are trying to figure out who they are, what they want, who they resonate with (see What Happened to My Kid for more on this), and they can’t see the larger picture like we can – at least not at first.
So avoid labelling any of your teen’s friends. Calling their friend a “bad influence” puts your teen in a position where they may feel the need to defend their friend. This has the potential of turning your son or daughter against you rather than helping them constructively think through their relationships . Teenagers want to make their own choices (and that’s a good thing for their development).
Our job as parents is to help them make good choices. Part of this process is patience as your children begin to see for themselves what happens with different types of friends. However, we don’t have to just sit back and wait…
Praise actions and demonstrate your love
Our kids often naturally pull away from us and toward their friends in adolescence. This is hard. It’s normal and okay to lament this. Just don’t take it out on your children.
Seek out ways to communicate positively with your teenagers. Do things together. Laugh together. And praise them when you see upright attitudes and behaviours.
Try to explain the attitude or behaviour you noticed, label it and praise their efforts. This helps children understand the praise and what attitudes and behaviours are good and desirable. For example, if your son helps his younger sister with her homework, praise his efforts by saying something like, “Blake, I really appreciate how you helped your sister with her math. That was very thoughtful and caring.”
Tell them you love them often, and demonstrate your love by really enjoying them. This may be difficult as you notice behaviours you do not like. However, make sure you separate your dislike for the behaviour from your love for your child.
Praising attitudes and behaviours and loving your child no matter what helps your child understand their value as a person and the importance of their actions. It also helps them notice the attitudes and actions of people around them.
Get to know their friends
When there is a friend you wonder about, own your feelings and reactions. What is it that you don’t like about the kid? It’s easy to let first impressions dictate how we feel more than reality. Are you reacting to the multiple piercings and tattoos or is it something else that you just can’t seem to put your finger on? Check your own reactions to see if you jumping to conclusions about their friend.
Take time to get to know your child’s friends. Sometimes you may find out that friends you thought were really “bad” are just normal kids going through tough times. As you get to know them, you will learn more about what they are really like, why they are like that and why your child is attracted to them.
This will give you more opportunity to talk with your son or daughter about their friends in a more objective tone. They won’t see you as the enemy, and they’ll be more willing to talk about what they think and feel.
Talk about behaviour and reputation
When you talk about friends that are having a negative influence on your teenager, ask questions that get them thinking. What do you like about this person? What do other people like about him? How does she treat her other friends?
Take time to talk about how the way a person behaves affects their reputation. Try to help your teenager think through the kind of reputation they would like to have. Ask lots of questions that get them thinking about the results of that reputation… What would they like people at school to say about them? How would it feel when they say those things? Who would benefit? What else would you like them to say?
It’s likely your child hasn’t thought much about reputation. They may be thinking quite simply that they want to be cool or smart or athletic. The goal of the questions is to help them dig a little deeper toward issues of character like respect, compassion and courage.
Your teenager might point out (perceptively) that it shouldn’t matter what other people think, that it’s important to be authentic. If they notice this, acknowledge their understanding of this truth, and talk about the importance of character. The idea for parents is that we are trying to lead our children toward g understandinthe importance of character by utilizing their natural desire to be liked by their friends.
As they begin to understand reputation, work toward helping them understand the behaviours that would develop that reputation. Ask questions like, “how would someone who is courageous and athletic behave? What would they do?”
It’s been said that “you are the average of your 5 closest friends.” Explain that people gain a reputation by who they hang out with. For example, you may not do drugs, but if you hang out with people who use drugs all the time people will assume you do too.
Make your house the place to be
A great way to get to know your teenager’s friends is to make your house the place to hangout. Although it may be physically and financially easier to keep your house clean and free from the impact of teenagers, you can greatly increase your influence on your children (and his friends) as well as your reputation among their friends by opening your home.
Obviously this doesn’t mean open house for out of control parties, but when your kids talk about their friends, lightly encourage them to invite them over. Provide snacks. Be interested in meeting their friends without being overbearing. Let them do their thing while going about your business, but allow your presence in the house to be seen as you come in to provide snacks, make dinner in the kitchen or whatever else you need to do as a parent around the house.
Friends who influence your teenager positively will enjoy having a place to hang out, eat snacks and be themselves around a parent who is interested yet unobtrusive. Those who are not so helpful of an influence will look for other places to hang out where there is no supervision.
Enlist other adult help
I’ve said it several times already, but the teen years are the years when children pull away from their parents and try out new friendships and relationships. It’s natural for your children to turn to other adults for information and advice as they try to figure out who they are apart from mom and dad.
Try to find other adults you trust who can invest in your child. These can be extended family members, fellow parents, or people from your community, special group or club.
Your child will confide in someone. If they have adults that invest in them whom they respect and know care, they will find the wisdom and advice you want them to have. Teens without adults investing in them outside their parents will confide in their friends (who themselves are in the midst of trying to navigate the tricky teenage years). This is not a bad thing, many teenagers have great advice. However, experience and wisdom is limited (and sometimes unwise) without adults involved and influential as well.
Set clear expectations and consequences
Teenagers are still children. They need clear boundaries and consequences. The goal is to teach them how to balance freedom with responsibility.
Having a plan for teaching this concept takes a lot of thought, reflection and adjustment. As you notice potential problems, think about what your expectations are in that area. Write them down and evaluate whether they are leading to the goal of maturity (or just your own personal convenience). Make them as clear and succinct as possible.
Then, sit down with your teenager at a time when emotions are in check and explain your expectations and why. Answer questions and discuss consequences. If it’s appropriate, have them help you come up with the consequences of breaking the boundaries discussed.
Knowing that our teenagers’ friends are so influential in their lives, we want to be proactive about helping them choose empowering friendships. Work on using some of the above ideas to surround your teenagers with the support they need to navigate these years and take intentional steps toward adulthood.