When You Don't Like Your Teenager's Friends

What to do and when to act when you disapprove of your teenager's pals.

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Lately, your son has deserted his old friends for a new, fast crowd. Their bizarre clothes and body piercings are bad enough, but their parties really worry you. Still, you know that well-intentioned warnings can backfire. You're caught between the urge to protect your son and the instinct to let him make his own decisions.

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Four Solutions

Let the situation dictate how you respond to your teen's potentially troublesome friendships.

1. When to keep quiet: Do nothing about your teen's choice of a friend when your disapproval is based solely on stereotypes, personal tastes, or opinions of a friend's parents.

Example: Your child's friend is from the "bad part of town," or is of a different race, religion, or ethnic heritage.

Example: You don't like a friend's dress, haircut, or manner of speech.

Example: You don't like or don't get along with the youngster's parents.

2. When to speak up: When you spot signs of potential trouble, but no actual problems now, keep a close eye on things and express your concerns to your child.

Example: The friend sometimes associates with troublemakers, but hasn't been involved in any mischief.

Example: The friend has been in trouble before, but seems to have straightened out.

Example: The friend's parents don't supervise as well as you'd like, or they give freedoms you're not yet willing to give your child.

Under such circumstances tell your teen how you feel: "I'm not comfortable with your friendship with so-and-so." Explain your expectations: "I'm going to keep closer tabs on you now than I normally would. But if you stay out of trouble, I won't butt in."

3. When to take action: Limit the relationship if the friend habitually gets into trouble, but only in certain situations; or, if your child and the friend get into minor trouble together. These are "marginal cases."

Example: The friend has a bad driving record.

Example: The friend has been arrested for shoplifting.

Example: Your child and the friend skipped school together.

In such situations, put some logical restrictions on the friendship. For instance, if the friend's driving record is poor, don't let your teen ride along. If the friend has been arrested for shoplifting, don't let them go to stores together without an adult.

You may issue a warning: "Right now, I'm only going to limit your relationship. If problems occur, I may put a complete freeze on things. It's all up to you and your friend."

4. When to draw the line: Prohibit the friendship altogether if the friend is a proven, habitual troublemaker, or if your child and the friend make major mischief together.

Example: The friend is a known drug user.

Example: The friend has a history of juvenile delinquency.

Example: Your teen and the friend burglarize someone's house.

The decision to intervene in your child's social life is never easy. You must balance facts against your intuitions, biases, protectiveness, and your ego. These rules of thumb will give you some direction:

  • Let your child pick his or her own friends. Pressuring your child into friendships almost always ends in disaster. The greatest danger is that the youngster will rebel and take friendships "underground."
  • Tolerate friendships that you think are mistakes, within the parameters discussed on the previous page. Remember that adolescence is a time to experiment socially, and even disastrous friendships can teach important lessons.
  • Hold your child accountable for his or her own behavior. Don't even imagine that your child only misbehaves because of a friend's poor example. Pinning blame on the bad influence of a friend won't help your child learn to accept responsibility.
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