What do you do when your son or daughter makes friends with someone you think is a bad influence? According to Barbara Polland, a professor of child development at California State University at Northridge, it’s almost inevitable that, somewhere down the line, your child will test the waters and befriend someone who doesn’t have the same values as you do.
“Children in the 8 to 12-year range are trying to become more independent and may be attracted to a ‘bad’ best friend as they take the first steps toward breaking away,” she says. Children who are “followers” by nature are more at risk because they’re more apt to listen to their friend than question why someone might be doing something inappropriate.
However, just because your child is hanging out with a rebellious friend doesn’t mean they are necessarily headed for trouble, she explains. At some point you have to trust their choices and be careful not to smother them. The more you show that you have confidence in their judgment, the more likely they’ll do the right thing in the end.
Above all, stresses Polland, do not restrict the relationship – yet. These relationships tend to fizzle out in time. She suggests the following:
Understand the friendship. “Usually kids choose friends with similar values, so any time you see your child choosing one with a dramatically different point of view, it’s a red flag,” warns Polland. Try to figure out why your child likes them. Maybe their new friend is a star athlete and it gives them a boost of self-esteem.
Get better acquainted. Invite their new friend over and engage them in conversation. You’ll learn more about them – and their behavior – and be able to form a more realistic opinion, rather than relying on hearsay.
State your expectations. Communication is key, stresses Polland, and best done without negative comments, accusations or yelling. Be clear about what your child can and can’t do – and what the consequences will be if they cross the line.
Reverse your roles. Ask your child to pretend to be you (hypothetically speaking) and ask them questions to get your message across. For example, says Polland, “Say ‘If you were the mom and the daughter of a friend of yours wanted to watch an R-rated movie that you knew wasn’t appropriate, what would you tell her is the right thing to do?’”
Provide an “out.” Help your child avoid embarrassing situations by giving them a catchphrase to use, such as “My parents won’t let me do that,” which gets them off the hot seat while still saving face.
Address the parents. Sometimes the situation warrants bypassing the new friend and talking directly to their parents. Michele Borba, Ph.D., educational psychologist and author of Building Moral Intelligence, advises taking a soft approach. She recommends saying something like “Our kids have been seeing a lot of each other lately and I wanted to introduce myself to you. We have certain rules in our house that I wanted you to be aware of so you can help reinforce them.” You don’t have to be best friends with these people, but you should try to get to know them better so you can keep the lines of communication open.
Break it off. If the friendship is truly becoming toxic, you need to intervene and end it. Have a calm, honest conversation with your child explaining your concerns, and help them work through and be supportive of the “breakup.”