by Dr. Michele Borba
Bad friends. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, we imagine only the worst: drugs, smoking, sex, trouble with the law. But what should parents do if they notice that their daughter is hanging out more with a kid whose values don’t seem in sync with their own? Is there ever a time when you should forbid your son from being with a particular friend?
The bottom line on this one: It’s okay to have friends who are different from your child. After all, exposing our kids to diversity is a big part of helping to broaden their horizons, learn new skills and perspectives, and get along with others. The trick here is to figure out when the other kid’s values or lifestyle are really reckless, self-destructive or totally inappropriate. Consider this: could hanging around this kid damage your child’s character, reputation, or health? Keep in mind that our kids are rarely made bad by another kid, but the friends our kids choose to hang around with sure can increase the odds that he may—or may not—get into trouble.
Here are a few tips to help you handle these rougher waters of parenting.
- Restate your standards.Be clear your child knows your family values and is aware of the consequence if he violates them. “No drugs, drinking, smoking.” “You always call to tell me where you are.” “You only go to homes where parents are there to supervise.” “You don’t leave one location and go to another without telling me.” A one time talk to your child isn’t going to cut it, so plan to talk again and again.
- Share your concerns.Instead of judging or criticizing your kid’s companion (which is guaranteed to end the conversation), describe the changes you see in your child. “I notice whenever you sit next to Kevin in class, I get a call from the teacher.” “You never swore before you starting hanging around that group.” If you’re not sure you understand what’s going on, ask questions. “You hid Ricky’s magazine when I came in your room. What exactly was it that you didn’t want me to see?”
- Talk to the parent.Try to talk to the other kid’s parent, and it’s best to do so as soon as your child befriends their child. Meeting personally would be ideal, but a phone call is usually more realistic. Try your best to be positive, friendly, and open minded. Exchange phone numbers. And if you haven’t taken time to do so with his other friends, make it a policy from now on.
- Befriend your child’s friends.Speak with them and let them know you are interested in their lives. You may see a different side. “Do you play any sports?” “How did you and Norma meet?” “Are you in any of the same classes?” “Can you stay for dinner?”
- Ask “What if..”A good way to assess your kid’s ability to handle peers who could be troublesome, is by posing “What if…?” questions. You make up the problem scenario, but then listen to how your child responds. His answers will be a springboard to talk about possible solutions he may face in bad company. “What if you go to a friend’s house and there aren’t any parents there?” “What if you’re at a slumber party and your friends want to sneak out and (smoke, drink, meet boys, etc)?”
- Get the facts.Talk to other parents, teachers, and adults whose opinions you value. Do they know the kid and share your concerns? Do their kids hang around with them? If not, why? What do they suggest?
- Know where your kid is at all times.Make it clear that immediately after school (or any activity) you want to hear from him. If your child doesn’t have access to a cell phone or pager, give him a phone card and teach him how to use it or how to make collect phone calls. There should be no excuses.
- Keep an open house.Stock your refrigerator with sodas, save those pizza coupons, and make your house kid-friendly to interest your child’s friends to come to your house. In fact, worry more if your kid doesn’t want to bring his friends over. Besides feeling more comfortable and knowing where your kid is, you’ll also be able to keep your eyes and ears open to see if your concerns are confirmed.
- Foster new associations.The best way to limit time spent with a potential bad friend, is to find other social avenues to go down instead. Look for places he can make new friends, such as The Boys & Girls Club, scouts, clubs, music, or sports. Arrange activities that your child wants to participate in (the basketball team, guitar lessons, the art class).
- Be prepared.Teach your child what to do any time he does not feel comfortable or thinks there could be trouble. Set up a code word that only you and your family know such as Robin Hood, Trick or Treat, Jimmy called, etc. That way anytime you are talking to your child and his friends are listening, he can say the word and you’ll know that it means they’re ready to come home. Also, have a parent support group available in which you and another friend who knows your child well, agrees that anytime you’re not available your child will call them (and vice versa with their kid) to pick him up.
- Watch for red flags.Are you seeing any changes in your child’s behavior that may be warning signs that things are becoming more serious? The key is to look for differences you’ve noticed in your child since he began hanging around with this companion: Slipping grades, tears, moodiness, red eyes (drugs), alcohol or smoke smell (or cologne to possibly cover up the smell), defiant or disrespectful attitude, hiding things or acting sneakily, sleeping too much, more accidents, a complete wardrobe change that is not your kid’s style, etc. Remember to direct your concerns to where it really counts: how your kid acts instead of how the other kids behave.
- Forbid bad friend when serious issues emerge.If the companion clearly is a “bad influence” and is pushing your kid into experimenting with serious issues such as drugs, substance abuse, shoplifting, sex, smoking, it’s time to draw a halt to the relationship. This may be easier said than done, but you may need to consider the extreme: changing schools, a summer camp, a month at a relative’s, a boarding school, or even moving. In some cases, it really may be the only option to prevent a potential tragedy.
Above all, keep the lines of communication open and your relationship warm and positive as your child. You want to convey the message loud and clear: “I love you.” “Remember, I’m always here for you.” Don’t let your dislike of your child’s friends hinder your relationship with your child.
Dr. Michele Borba is an internationally recognized expert and author on children, teens, parenting, bullying and moral development. She is an NBC contributor appearing over 100 times on the TODAY show and is the regular parenting expert on Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers. Her work has been featured on Dr. Phil, Dateline, The View, The Doctors, Fox News, The Early Show and CNN and well as in Newsweek,People, Good Housekeeping, Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, Washington Post, The New York Times and The Globe and Mail. She was an MSNBC contributor to two televised “Education Nation” specials. Dr. Borba is the awardwinning author of 22 parenting and educational books translated into 14 languages. Titles include: Don’t Give Me That Attitude!, Parents Do Make A Difference, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries, and Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me!, No More Misbehavin’, Building Moral Intelligence (cited by Publishers’ Weekly as “Among the most noteworthy of 2001”), and Esteem Builders used by 1.5 million students worldwide. She writes as the parenting expert for Dr. Oz’s website, as well a daily column for her blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check: www.micheleborba.com Twitter: @micheleborba