What to do if you don’t like your child’s school friends

Dr Ginni Mansberg and Jo Lamble look at strategies for friendships and bad influences

Your teen’s friends
Now your child is a teen, it’s natural that you have less input into their friendships. They won’t necessarily be friends with the children of your own friends, as so often happens with younger children. Sometimes you might not even meet their school friends, unlike at primary school when your child probably had organised ‘play dates’.

However, it can be worrying when you don’t like one or more of your teenager’s friends. You might think they’re a bad influence on your child or that your teen has changed since the friendship developed. Most of us understand that friends are everything to adolescents – remember Professor Hickie’s advice (from Chapter 4) that teenagers’ brains are wired to look to their peers so that they can socially develop? They don’t take it well if we criticise any of their mates. So what should we do if we just really don’t like a particular friend or group of friends?

It depends on what you’re seeing. If you haven’t witnessed any dangerous or risky behaviour in this friend or in your child, but you just get a bad feeling about them, then I suggest you encourage your child to talk about this person. What does your son or daughter like about them? What do they like about the friendship? Perhaps this friend is giving them confidence or is tapping into some vulnerabil­ity that you may or may not know about. Maybe this friend is pure fun and they are seeing a new side of life. Once you have more infor­mation about why they like this person, it’s a good idea to gently ask your child if they’re concerned about their friend in any way. Wrapped in loads of empathy, you can ask about this young person’s family and whether they are close to their parents. You can casually ask if there is any behaviour that they’re worried about and applaud your child’s compassion for their friend’s issues (if they have any). You could help them think of ways to look out for their mate. That way, you’re able to voice your concerns about this person in an empathic way.

Secondly (and you might not love this one), if you are not seeing any really worrying behaviour, I think it can be a good idea to ask this person over to your house quite often. Invite them to dinner with the family. Get to know them a little more and hopefully see the good in them. Your child should appreciate that you’re making an effort and it can also be a chance for your child to see how this friend fits in with your family’s values.

My advice changes if you’re seriously concerned about the changes in your adolescent since they have been seeing more of this friend. If your teen is starting to really act out when they’re with certain peers, a stronger approach is needed. Perhaps they have started skipping school or abusing drugs and alcohol. Maybe they have been caught stealing or selling drugs alongside some friends. Your son or daughter might have completely changed their look and is acting beyond their level of maturity and taking unhealthy risks. If these worrying behaviours are happening, they are probably also starting to drop activities they used to love, such as sport or music, and they are no doubt starting to distance themselves from their old friends and their family. You probably won’t want to invite these friends over for a regular Sunday dinner. But it’s still important not to heavily criticise these young people. Your adolescent could easily drift closer and closer to these friends if they sense that you blame them for everything.

Instead of criticising them, a combination of showing empathy for these new friends and exploring what your child is getting out of the friendship is the way to go. Try to understand the reasons why your teen is drawn to these kids. Ask your child if they feel stronger or more adventurous or more adult when they are taking risks. Ask your child if they have been feeling bored or stuck. Ask your child if they have lost confidence in their schoolwork or with sport, art or music and they haven’t learned how to deal with this drop in confidence. In other words, try to connect with your teen while you express your serious concerns about the decisions they are making.

If you show an interest in the reasons behind the worrying friend­ship, then you are more likely to get some buy-in when you start to put some protective strategies in place. If they admit to liking some risk-taking behaviours, suggest some healthy alternatives. Offer to take them rock-climbing, go-cart racing or some other safe thrill-seeking activity. If they talk about feeling more confident around these new friends, discuss other ways to increase their confidence. Maybe they need some extra help with schoolwork or perhaps they are dealing with some bullying you didn’t know about. If they are getting a buzz from others looking up to them for taking risks, talk about the power of being a healthy role model and the confidence gained from helping others to stay safe.

The final strategy will obviously be trying to limit the time your teen spends with friends who concern you. Remind your child that your main priority is to keep them safe and you won’t give up on that goal. Even if your teen claims to hate you for saying no to a suggested outing with certain friends, you need to reiterate that as long as they are safe, you can handle their fury. As we keep saying, teenagers can vote with their feet, so they can easily just walk out the door to catch up with these friends. But if you have a fairly good connection, and you have attempted to understand how they are feeling and have made good suggestions to deal with these feelings, then you will hopefully get reluctant compliance.

A final piece of advice: if your teen starts to be friendly again with someone you all agree treated them badly in the past, don’t be too quick to react. We don’t want our children to base their decisions about relationships solely on what we think and feel. That would not foster independence. Obviously, if this person badly bullied them, you would want to understand why your child is willing to take the risk of rekindling this friendship. Sometimes, your child will explain that this friend has changed and has taken responsibility for what happened in the past. If your teen is willing to forgive and forget for what sound like good reasons, then think about welcoming this person back into your house (although you might be waiting for history to repeat and be ready to catch your teen if they fall again). But if it sounds to you like nothing has changed and this friend is still behaving in a way that concerns you, gently point out your concerns and remind your child what happened in the past.

The new Teen Age cover small

Extract from The New Teen Age by Dr Ginni Mansberg and Jo Lamble. (Murdoch Books RRP $32.99) How to support today’s tweens and teens to become healthy, happy adults.

Being a parent of a teenager can be daunting. How do we help them navigate the modern world while keeping them safe and happy? Their physical and psychological changes throw up a while range of issues that we aren’t always equipped to handle. Here, finally, is a practical and direct guide for parents that covers the lot. Phew! Amanda Keller OAM
(Amanda is an Australian television and radio presenter, comedian, writer, actor, journalist and media personality, best known as the host of the popular Australian lifestyle program The Living Room.)