By Barbara Whitaker
How to Know When You Must Step In…and When You Ought to Stand Back
Last year, my 15-year-old daughter, a sophomore in high school, began dating a senior. He wasn't involved in any school activities, showed no interest in going to college, and rarely came to our house, except for a few times late at night.
But beyond the above — and the fact that he was older than my daughter (and, I feared, might pressure her for sex) — there was little to indict him. Ultimately, I didn't interfere with the relationship, though I watched for changes in my daughter's behavior and monitored her schoolwork for falling grades. I encouraged her to stay involved in theater and music, and I made sure she spent time with her girlfriends.
Although I often felt uneasy, everything eventually turned out okay. But figuring out how to proceed when you don't like your kid's friends is always hard. Here's what experts say you need to know.
What's a Bad Influence?
Just because a boy has long hair or gets so-so grades doesn't mean you should forbid your daughter from seeing him. "Don't be too quick to judge," says Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and a mother of three. "It's the kid's heart and conscience that count."
Besides, "stepping in and saying, 'You absolutely must not see this person' will only make the child want to do it more," says Anita Gurian, Ph.D., a child-development psychologist at New York University Child Study Center. "She may be attracted to someone from a totally different background, but that's the way your child is learning about the world." Take a little time, experts suggest, and see if letting the friendship run its course is the best thing to do. It may fizzle on its own.
But that doesn't mean you can't do anything in the meantime. More than ever, pay attention to where your child is going and what she's up to. "Make your house an attractive place for kids to congregate," advises Fred Frankel, Ph.D., professor of medical psychology at UCLA and director of the school's Parent Training and Children's Friendship Program. "And always talk to your child's friend when he comes over. Ask him how he's doing, how school is going, anything. Get to know the child."
Similarly, adds Borba, try to pick up your child after school or attend extracurricular activities "to scope out the social scene and get to know different parents" — including the parents of your kid's friend. "If, for example, the parents allow their son to throw unsupervised parties, or if they serve alcohol to him, those are good indicators that this kid might be a bad influence," says Frankel.
Of course, there are times when you can't just watch and wait. It's an obvious red flag if, for example, your kid starts to use raunchy language, becomes more defiant, breaks curfew, slips up in school, starts drinking or experimenting with drugs, or breaks the law.
Stacy, a mom in suburban New York, watched as her 16-year-old daughter became friends with a young woman who seemed extremely needy, clingy, and possessive. (Stacy declined to use her last name for this story, because the situation has only recently been resolved.) Stacy's concerns grew as her daughter changed her appearance to look more like the friend and began lying about her whereabouts. When the friend's mother called to ask why the girls might need $200, Stacy asked her daughter, who said she and her friend intended to buy a birthday present for another girl. But the sum seemed way too high, and Stacy worried that they wanted to buy drugs. She decided she had to get involved.
When Stacy sat her daughter down for a conversation, she focused on the impact of the friend's behavior: The girl was calling 10 times a night, interfering with homework, and generally making it difficult for Stacy's daughter to have other friends. The daughter's response took Stacy by surprise. "She told me, 'I was afraid. I thought it was safer to be her friend,'" Stacy recalls, explaining that her daughter feared the girl might try to retaliate if she withdrew her friendship. "Ultimately, my daughter was relieved that I made her break it off."
Experts say this reaction is not unusual: "In my research, when parents took a strong but authoritative stand with a rational explanation, the kid was grateful the parent was doing something," says Toni Falbo, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. "In the back of their minds, most kids know when they're doing something too risky."
When It Doesn't Go Smoothly
Still, some kids may dig in their heels when confronted, feeling loyal to their friend or resentful about being told what to do. To keep from alienating your child, try these tactics.
- Stay as calm as you can, and don't allow the conversation to dissolve into a shouting match. Don't lecture; listen. And help your child think clearly about whether or not this person is really a good friend. Ask questions like, "Can Suzie keep a promise? Will she let you down?"
- Give specific, real examples. What are you worried about? Is it falling grades? The fact that your child has cut off all her other friends? Whatever it is, be prepared to go into detail. Kids will listen as long as you spell out your concerns in concrete terms. Then, talk about your family's rules and values, specifying the consequences for unacceptable behavior. "You need to say, 'I'm worried about what's happening to you,'" says Alison Birnbaum, a licensed social worker in Connecticut who works with families. "You're not being your best self, and it's my job as your mom to help you achieve your highest goals."
What else can you do? In some cases, it helps to talk to your kid's school counselor; she may be able to give you a fresh perspective. She can also help you figure out if any changes might be necessary at school, to keep your child and her friend apart. And get creative about finding something to replace the friendship — e.g., a new activity that would really interest your child.
But remember, in most instances, the friendship will run its course and nothing dire will happen. That was certainly true for my daughter. After a few months, the boyfriend began to complain that she was spending too much time with other friends. The more she pushed him away, the more interested he became. He even came for dinner over Easter break. I remember telling my daughter that the more I got to know him, the more I liked him. The relationship didn't last another week.
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