When Your Good Kid Has Bad Friends

Tips on Teens #013

Remember when your child was sweet and innocent?  She wore pretty dresses, enjoyed Radio-Disney and had such nice and polite friends… and that was last semester!  Now her friends seem like a surly group of teens that might frighten the guards at Juvenile Hall.  They always seem dirty, they’re disrespectful and you’re pretty sure from the looks of them that they do drugs!

Whether you know for certain or it’s just a feeling in your gut, sometimes you’ll find you just hate your kid’s friends because they give you the heebie-jeebies.  It’s not uncommon for you to feel this way.  

The good news is that often times your kid’s friends look much worse than they really are.  Just because her best friend has a hairstyle resembling a collection of dead ferrets and wears clothes that are both too big and too small all at the same time, doesn’t mean that she’s a bad kid.  Consider carefully before making snap judgments on whether your teen’s friend (nicknamed Danger-Funk) is a bad person. 

What I’d like to address in this article is when you know or have very strong suspicions that your kid’s friends are a few steps away from being detained… and I don’t mean school detention.

mother worrying about kid having the wrong friends and imagining them smoking pot

 

Everything was perfect until he started hanging out with those loser friends of his.  Why would he lower himself to be like them?

Your teen doesn’t view it as lowering himself to their standards.  Most likely, he feels that he has finally found people who he can relate to.  Take a good look at your kid’s friends and you’ll have an inkling of how he sees himself or how he wants to be seen.

Take yourself for example.  Think about the people whom you choose to socialize with.  For the most part, they have similar interests, ideas, life styles, etc.  That is not to say that you and your peers are clones of one another, but generally speaking you chose them because their views on life are similar to yours.  Now that you’re an adult, you hopefully have a stronger sense of who you are and how you’d like to present yourself.  Your teen is not yet an adult and he does not come with 40 years of life experience.  He is just now figuring out that there are other people who live their lives differently from the only lifestyle he has ever known and yet they still survive.  It’s kind of like coming to that great realization: “Wow!  You mean I’ll still grow tall even if I don’t eat all my broccoli?”  It makes sense then that your teen is using this time to figure out who he is, who he wants to be, and how he wants to portray himself.  Who your kid really is vs. who your kid wants to be can often be as opposite as night and day.  Thus the dilemma.

Finding new friends that are different from the usual circle of friends is exciting.  What’s essential to him is that he’s found some friends with similar interests and feelings.  It’s not important to your kid whether Danger-Funk has similar life goals or school grades.  All he wants is to be accepted by someone who views life in a way that resonates with him now (not how it resonates with you).  This is his version of expanding his horizons.  He is exposing himself to different cultures – you just wish it was by traveling to Rome or Tokyo instead!

How could my kid possibly relate to those creeps?  Are they brain-washing her?

Cultivating an identity is the biggest developmental challenge to wrangle for an adolescent.  Therefore, teens gravitate toward those who they identify with… or want to be identified with.  When your good kid starts to socialize with a clique of troubled teens, it is often less about rebelling against you (although that can be an added bonus for her if the two of you have a strained relationship).  Generally, it is more about connecting with the similar emotional sensibility that those individuals share with her.  

Another reason for a new out-of-the-ordinary friendship may be because of a certain mysteriousness that this new friend possesses – this can make someone especially alluring or seductive.  A new person who is so completely different from how your kid was raised or with viewpoints on the polar opposite end of what you’ve taught her can make your kid’s new friend seem like the next best thing since sliced bread.  It’s hard to compete with idolization.  It might even come across as a crush, not in the sexual way but just from sheer admiration.  However, idolization goes along with the territory of a teenager trying to discover how she wants to be in the world.  The “I wish I was her!” mantra is running pretty strong right now.  Falling into this trap is particularly common when a child has low self-esteem or has a shortage of positive role models.

Ask yourself what kinds of role models your teen has had in the past.  What role models does she have now?  Positive or negative?  Is there a long history of disapproval from you toward her friends?  If so, maybe you can look at the pattern and consciously work to see the deeper meaning behind it.  While these questions don’t give us all the answers, they are certainly worthwhile to ponder.  Even kids with positive role models their whole lives may still end up making friends with someone that makes you want to change the alarm code on your house.  The point is to try to think about what might make these new friends so attractive.

Okay, so I’ve looked at all the past history and what not.  I have to say… my kid’s had a pretty great life so far.  I’ve given him everything he needs.  How could he possibly connect with those kids on any level?  Especially emotionally???  Yikes!!!

It’s great that your kid’s had such a wonderful life so far!  That is something a parent can feel very good about.  However, sometimes when giving him everything he needs the emotional support required by a child can be overlooked.  When raising children, it must be your constant daily mission to keep the communication open between parent and child so that the emotional connection remains strong.  I commonly see how the lines of communication can deteriorate because of life getting in the way.  Too busy to eat dinner together, too busy to make plans together, too busy to just sit and talk about the day, etc.  It’s not intentional but it happens and the result is a less than ideal emotional connection between parent and child.  

On an unconscious level, we all relate to one another emotionally.  You have an emotional connection with your friends; that is why you like being with them.  Your teen develops emotional connections with others that he feels have similar feelings as he does.  Therefore, if your teenager is running with the wrong crowd, it may be because he is struggling with significant emotional pain and/or because he feels that he gets more support from these new friends than from you.  Perhaps he has deep fears that his previous good friends won’t understand because they don’t have the same feelings, and they will reject him outright (at least that’s how he sees it).  Instead of facing that devastating rejection, he might renounce his old friends and family and adopt a new family in the circle of bad friends, because they might have similar emotional struggles and they can relate to his.  Remember, these new friends probably don’t judge him and criticize him and he can enter these new friendships with a clean slate.

But if she stays with those friends, won’t they force her to do drugs, commit crimes and have sex?

There is a myth that bad kids actively pressure good teenagers to do evil deeds.  Trouble making teens have little interest in socializing with a goody-two-shoes.  Yet, sometimes, good kids are drawn to the bad kids for what they represent.  Often they symbolize ideals like independence and strength.  It’s an illusion of course, but teenagers often have a difficult time seeing past that.  If your teen is having a tough time with self-esteem issues, the bad crowd may seem to her like a good way of feeling stronger and more secure.  That’s how teens (and adults for that matter) want to portray themselves… strong, confident and accepted.

I talk to teenagers all the time who run with what their parents think is the wrong crowd.  These kids consistently tell me that their bad friends don’t pressure them into doing these things that you fear.  In fact, most of these kids tell me that their friends (the bad kids) will encourage them not to go down this path.  

Research on this subject is as inconsistent as your teenager’s mood swings, so I consulted with several respected colleagues who also work with teens.  From their experience, they have come to the same conclusion.  That’s not to say that overt pressure isn’t applied to some kids; however I believe that it is the exception, not the rule.  

So what is the truth behind the myth?

The pressure to use drugs, act out sexually or any other activities that will make your hair fall out is generally from internal pressure.  His insecurity drives him to want to fit in with his new group of friends so badly, that he’ll choose to do something wrong just to belong, not because his buddies are telling him to do it.  The thought is, “If I do this, then they will like me.”  

The definition of “popular”: liked, admired, or enjoyed by many people or by a particular person or group. 

You would be hard pressed to find a teenager who does not care about being popular.  Even if he says that he doesn’t  care about being accepted, it is an innate feeling to want to be liked.  So this insecurity drives your kid’s actions more than the pressure he may be feeling from his friends.

To belong to a group or community means feeling accepted, feeling important and feeling loved.  These are things that I give to my kid unconditionally.  So why would she need to seek these things out from friends?  

This is the time for your teenager to branch out and learn who she is outside of the family dynamic.  Often times, during these teen years, the acceptance of friends is much more important than feeling accepted by your family.  

Think of the new clique of friends as having its own culture.  To become one with that culture, your kid feels that she has to join in the customs.  If smoking pot is an accepted part of that culture, she may choose to do it.  However, it’s not the marijuana that she initially wants, nor is it the new friend making her do it… it’s the need to feel accepted.  Your kid is trying to bond with her new peers through their cultural activities.  “When in Rome…” if you know what I mean.

I feel that those friends are bringing him down.  Can’t I just refuse to allow him to see them and then his self-esteem will improve?

No.  More than likely, your child will feel even more alone and will hate you.  On top of that, you’ll make martyrs out of his friends.  You can’t defeat a martyr… especially when there’s a group of them who are so much cooler than you!  

The more you try to control his thoughts and feelings about his friends, the more he will rebel against your efforts.  This can lead to your kid more aggressively acting out.  The stronger your criticisms are of his friends, the more he will place them on a pedestal to worship in all their glory.  

What am I supposed to do?  I can’t even stand to have “Danger-Funk and the rest of the Crew” in my house!

Don’t kick them out!  Your house is the best place to keep an eye on them and… get to know them.  Most of the time, kids just need a place to hang out.  Why not let that be your place?  From a parent’s standpoint, isn’t it much better than the mall or in a parking lot?  You can use that opportunity to engage them in conversation enough to where they know and trust you (just don’t be too pushy!).  If you spend some energy to get to know her friends, then you may be surprised when one of these kids gives you the heads up about when your kid needs help.  Trust me, I’m not making this up.  This really does happen.

Two things can result if you allow your house to be the hang out spot.  Best-case scenario: you end up liking your kid’s friends.  And what a valuable reminder about how appearances can be deceiving!  On the flip side, if you decide that they really are a bad bunch after some conversations, having them hang out in your home is exactly where you want them to be.  You can at least keep an eye on the interactions and perhaps provide an environment that would lessen any pressure that your kid might fall under to do those things you fear.  It’s a lot easier to cover up the smell of marijuana in a parking lot than it is in your home, so more than likely any immediate pressure will be lifted.  Now you can see why making your home as inviting as possible is actually a good idea!

They’re not going to want to hang out with me playing “Mister Rogers” forever!  How do I handle it when he does go out with them?  

Even though you may allow him to hang out with these friends, you still need to maintain the agreements you’ve made regarding social privileges.  These boundaries should still be measured by how successfully your kid meets his responsibilities (school work, chores, meeting curfew, etc.).  If he is behaving within a relatively acceptable level, he should have the freedoms that you feel are appropriate for his age.  If his grades are good, he’s doing most of his chores and is checking in with you and getting your permission before he goes out with his friends… you may want to cut him some slack.  Your teenager  might be smarter than you’ve given him credit.

That’s it?  I don’t think I can stand it!  How long will this phase last???

Oh, if only we could look into the future!  I wish I could give you the answer to that oh-so-common question.  The bottom line is that you can’t control your kid’s thoughts, feelings or motives.  You can’t always control her behavior either.  The only thing you have total control over is how you respond to your child.  Calmly reiterate the agreements that you’ve made regarding her social liberties, whether she likes it or not (probably not).  Do your best to share empathy with your kid during her tumultuous adolescence.  A little emotional understanding can go a long way.  Expect for some mistakes to be made – big and small.  However, with your never-ending support (even when she makes decisions that you completely disagree with) she will learn from them slowly, sometimes needing the same lesson more than once, and in the process learn more about who she is as she gets closer and closer to reaching adulthood.

If your teen is overwhelming you (they often do), get help.  When your kid is overwhelmed, you want him to seek help don’t you? Set the example… especially when your teen doesn’t follow it.  Lean on peers, family, clergy and therapists.  You never have to parent alone. 

(updated article from December 2007)

Remember that adolescence is a temporary mental disorder and will pass within a few years.


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