Friend or Foe? Dealing With Your Child’s Troublesome Friends- a 3-part Series
It’s a phrase dreaded by parents everywhere – “But all of my friends are doing it!” And while the old standby – “If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” – can be an effective reply, the original plea is still a jolting reminder of the powerful influences that your children’s friendships carry.
This is usually not a problem when the buddies in question are mellow, respectful do-gooders whom you adore. If only that was always the case.
“Unfortunately, the kids who receive attention from adults and attract their peers are often the ones who don’t follow the rules,” says Nina Senatore, a professor of education at Simmons College in Boston.
What do you do when your child chooses a friend whose actions and behavior clashes with your family’s rules and values? Focus on the behavior, not the friendship, child development experts say. And tailor your approach to your child’s age.
In this segment we focus on:
Grade School Buddies
As children progress through elementary school, they tend to test social boundaries, making friendships a trickier area for parents.
“Most grade school kids go through phases of being rude, direct or too clever,” says says Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, author of Making Friends: A Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Child’s Friendships (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2009). “They need to, in order to find out how it feels to step over the line and how, then, to pull back. They often talk like this to each other at school and have to learn not to do it to adults or elsewhere.”
When you witness questionable banter between your child and a friend, it’s tempting to interrupt the situation. Take a step back, advises Anthony Rao, Ph.D., a behavioral psychologist at Harvard Medical School and in private practice, and co-author of The Way of Boys: Raising Healthy Boys in a Challenging and Complex World
“We do like to intercede in children’s behavior – but try to let interactions unfold in a natural way,” he says. “If there are negative elements in their behavior, it’s a matter of learning how they will react to negative situations. There’s a lot to learn in social interactions, good or bad.”
If you decide that the negative social interactions are becoming too frequent or if you witness troublesome behavior that you feel is simply too serious to ignore, try to address the problem with your child in a non-confrontational way. “When a friend has shocked or upset you, try not to put them down to your child,” Hartley-Brewer says. “At this age, given that friends are so personal, if you criticize a friend, in effect you criticize your child, who may then side with the mate rather than you. Instead, focus clearly on the behavior.”
Explain why the behavior in question is unacceptable and how it contradicts the values of your family. But be prepared to let your child do some of the talking, as it can be an opportunity for her to use her own reasoning skills. Rao recommends phrasing questions in the third person to keep things more neutral. For example, if you’ve witnessed your child’s friend bullying other children, you could ask, “What do other kids think about what he did?” or “How did this behavior make someone feel?”
If a friendship has negatively affected school behavior, Senatore recommends asking your child what her teacher expects in the classroom. “You’re talking about being a positive member of the community and not discounting a specific friend,” she says. “It’s not about Jennie being bad, but rather how she can contribute to the class.”
Making Friends: A Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Child’s Friendships , by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2009. Explores typical experiences in pre-adolescent friendships and offers advice for parents on adapting, guiding and supporting children effectively.
The Way of Boys: Raising Healthy Boys in a Challenging and Complex World, by Anthony Rao, Ph.D., and Michelle Seaton, William Morrow, 2009. Suggests strategies and patience as parental antidotes for energetic, seemingly “brash” young boys. Rao points to frequent misdiagnoses of boys as suffering from ADHD or other disorders, when often their behavior is temporary and addressable.
Antoinette Donovan Hemphill is a freelance writer.