Every parent eventually faces this dilemma. You look at your teenager's unscrupulous new friend and think, "Oh boy, this isn't good." You toss and turn in bed at night, pondering the situation from every angle:
Do I forbid them from seeing each other?
Do I talk to the toxic teen's parents?
Do I involve school officials?
Suddenly, those innocent elementary school years, when you supervise nearly every aspect of your kid's life, are dwindling memories. No more arranging playdates or coordinating after-school activities. Adolescence hit, and whammo! Everything changes. Even professional parenting advice is filled with contradictions:
Be firm—and flexible.
Set limits—yet provide greater freedom.
Accommodate—but don't be a push over.
Welcome to the exasperating balancing act of parenting a teenager.
Show me your friends, and I'll show you your future
It's no secret that friends wield enormous influence during adolescence, so who your kid befriends matters—a lot. Numerous studies have shown that disruptive behaviors increase in kids when they begin to associate with teenagers who engage in risky or dangerous behaviors. During adolescence, as family influence is usurped by peer influence, pay close attention to who your kid chooses for friends. Friendships reveal volumes about a teenager's internal life.
Here are the top three reasons kids gravitate toward negative peers influences:
1. Low Self-Esteem
Insecure teens yearn for peer acceptance more than average. They lack a strong sense of self or identity, and this makes them more vulnerable to negative influences. Peers who appear to have social power and public confidence are most alluring. In other words, self-doubting teens seek out in peers what they lack in themselves.
2. An Absence of Positive Adult Role Models
Teens need positive adult relationships outside the orbit of their family to achieve a healthy emotional development. When young people lack strong adult role models, they turn to peers for leadership. This creates an imbalance that puts them at the mercy of the friends they choose, particularly friends that lack a strong moral core.
3. Poor Parent Relationships
Teens naturally flee from a home life filled with conflict. Bottom line: the more disunity at home, the greater the influence of peers. Anger teens feel toward their parents always fuel destructive behaviors and reckless peer relationships.
What to do
If your teen is hanging out with the wrong crowd, consider it a sign of an internal unbalance; a symptom of deeper issues. Before you go to war with your kid's choice of friends, beware: you risk inciting rebellion and actually strengthening their bond. Though banning a relationship is always an option, consider these steps first:
1. Take a quick inventory of your kid's life
What's missing? Does she participate in school clubs or sports? Does she have enough creative outlets? Look for esteem building activities that put your kid in the company of positively motivated peers or adults who are good mentors. Rather than trying to eliminate a bad friend, bring more positive influences into your kid's life.
2. Get Support for Yourself
Share your concerns with your spouse, friends or fellow parents. Talk out your fears, exchange ideas and get advice. Parents who have already survived their kids' adolescence are particularly helpful. It's a great comfort to be with parents who know what you're going through and can steer you in the right direction.
3. Keep Your Relationship Positive
Recently, I came across a study that discovered that teenagers that have positive relationships with their parents are 60 percent less likely to engage in delinquent activities. That means it's vital that you find a way to stay close to your kid by spending more time together, listening more than you talk and finding activities that you can enjoy together. Remember, listening is more powerful than any unsolicited advice or criticism you can offer.
Teenagers, like many of us, learn life lessons the hard way. It takes time to recognize good friends from bad. During that struggle, no kid benefits from his or her parents to be the voice of doom. Give your child room to make mistakes. Offer your support and understanding. Then your teenager will turn to you for reassurance when feeling vulnerable and carry your good role modeling into all their relationships.
Sean Grover, LCSW, author of "When Kids Call the Shots," is a psychotherapist with more than 20 years experience working with adults and children. To learn what to do when you think your kids are calling the shots, check out Sean's article for Parenting: "Do Your Kids Rule the Roost? Here's How to Regain Control." You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
©2015 Sean Grover, author of "When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully—and Enjoy Being a Parent Again."