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Health & Parenting

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When You Don’t Like Your Kid’s Friends

Taking Action

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.

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