Troublesome Friends: Teen Peers and Cliques

Friend or Foe? Dealing With Your Child’s Troublesome Friends - A 3-Part Series

By Antoinette Donovan Hemphill

Troublesome FriendsIt’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:

Teen Peers and Cliques

During middle and high school, the situation is even more about getting to know your child’s friends than about controlling who those friends are. “The ear to the peer group is stronger most times,” says 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.. “If you tell your children they can’t have a certain friend, it will absolutely seal the deal for them to like that child more.”

In an “offense is the best defense” approach, parents should try to make their home a comfortable and welcoming place for spending time with friends. “Your child’s friends should have lots of face time [in your home],” Rao says. “Your children will feel like there’s nothing to hide. They are also less likely to get into trouble when these situations are created.”

By providing a positive environment for your child and his friends, you’re also making yourself an understanding and reliable presence in their lives. “Typically, adolescents who make good choices cite adults in their lives as good role models,” says says Nina Senatore, a professor of education at Simmons College in Boston.

The outright banning of specific friends at the middle- and high-school level should be a last resort and reserved for serious issues that are severely compromising your child’s safety and morals. “It can be a mine field,” Rao warns about stepping in. “They’re not going to give up friends easily at this age.” 

If, however, it becomes necessary, use a sympathetic approach. For example, if the friend in question has been caught drinking, Rao recommends exploring the issue with questions such as, “It’s sad that John got caught drinking, because he’s a good person. How did he get into this situation? How can you avoid getting into a similar situation?”

With this approach, you are not attacking the friend, but having a conversation in which your child has an opportunity to figure out why this person shouldn’t be part of his life. Have this talk before you let your emotions nervously dictate a friendship ban. “Fear and anxiety often interfere with good parenting,” Rao says. “You have to keep your fear in check.”

You may find that just talking about these serious issues with your teen results in his spending less time with the troublesome peer.


Troublesome Friends: The Early Years

Troublesome Friends: Grade School Buddies


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.