The Pressure of Negative Influences
Visit any junior high or high school and you will experience the power of influence. Clothing, hairstyles, attitudes and even the language are all gained by some amount of influence, whether it is from commercials, fads, trends, celebrities or music. Teen and preteen children are influenced by these various factors. However, a child's friends are the No. 1 influence.
Unfortunately, negative influences are just as easily accepted as positive ones. Karen Casey of Akron, Ohio, witnessed just how far the negative influences of friends can go. "My son was involved with various bad influences from age 12 to 15," Casey says. "His bad behaviors began with staying out progressively past curfew and riding the bus home at 2 a.m. At the worst point, he would come home at 7 a.m. drunk."
Besides drinking, Casey's son did drugs and smoked, as well. "Also, he was arrested at school for possession and for involvement in a drug sale – though not dealing himself," she says. "In addition, my son has been arrested for vandalism and for drug-related offenses. He's been expelled from different schools as a result. He's almost 16 years old."
Not Your Kid?
Before you think your children's friends could never lead one another astray, think again. A child may experience an event that has caused overwhelming stress or may have problems at home or school, which causes negative behavior.
"There are no real good kids or bad kids," says Mara Berkley, family therapist and professor at Bristol University in Rhode Island. "All children begin at the same level and will usually make friends based on some common interest or likes. Then, as these children grow older, interests or behaviors will change – for whatever reason, one child may begin to display antisocial or inappropriate behaviors, while another child can become drawn in. Children who have been friends since kindergarten can find themselves in company with strangers as they enter middle or high school."
Negative influences of a child's friends can come without warning. They can be sudden or could progress overtime. Parents should make themselves aware of a child's behavior and habits so when a change occurs, it will be noticed.
"Parents who ask their children where they are going, who they are going with and request a meeting with their child's friends and the friends' parents have already taken the first step," Berkeley says. "This information will give them knowledge – knowledge of their child and their child's friends. It provides a baseline for the parent to use should something 'unusual' or 'out of the ordinary' occur."
Lynn Rexroat of Chillicothe, Ill., uses this method to keep tabs on her children. "My oldest son knows that in order for him to go anywhere with a friend, especially one I haven't met before, that I have to speak with that friend's parent to make sure the arrangements are agreeable with us both," she says. "I don't interrogate them by asking about their private life. I just want to know that the parents of the other child know what the boys are planning to do. I feel by my wanting to know I am protecting my son. He knows I will check, so he doesn't plan anything that can't be confirmed."
When a parent suspects that their child is hanging out with "the wrong crowd," the last thing on their mind should be discipline. Instead, Berkeley says a parent should be more interested in finding out the reasons behind the behaviors and the child's choice to keep company with these types of friends.
"Investigate what is going on in a child's life that makes him feel he needs to be with these children," she says. "Children may feel they are missing something in their own world at home, whether it is companionship or sympathy, and may feel these peers – even with the negative behavior – can give it to them."
When Michelle Turner's daughter was 13, she started hanging out with older girls. "She became much more outspoken, arguing about rules that had been fine up until now, and would be late coming home three or four times a week," says Turner of Butler, Pa. "She snuck out of the house a few times and started skipping school. I found out later that she had been protecting her best friend by staying out late with her. With some discussions and talking about the whole situation, I was able to find out why the behaviors were happening, and we addressed them together."
Take the Offensive
The first step in dealing with negative effects of friends is to set boundaries. Limits should be offered as to what is acceptable and what is not, regarding friendships. "Children should have good boundaries that include consequences if and when the boundaries are crossed or broken," Berkeley says. "It should be clear that 'these' kids are not OK kids and that the parents do not want them to be in their company. Parents should set boundaries, and keep to them. Often, parents are not strong enough about forbidding relationships that they do not feel are appropriate for their children. It's totally and absolutely important for a parent to say, 'No, you may not be with this child, and this is why.'"
Forbidding a relationship with someone who may have a negative effect on your child is not the only option. As a child may see forbidding as a challenge, parents can try a subtler tactic. "Instead of forbidding a child to keep the company of a peer who a parent feels is not appropriate, which may make the peer even more interesting, invite that child into your home," Berkeley says. "Inviting the child to the home allows the parent to watch closely what behaviors are being displayed and takes away any question there may be as to where the children are and what they are doing. Oftentimes, these types of children will welcome the opportunity to be a part of someone else's world. They might end up being a kid you can trust. Ask them for their help with a stuck door or with moving a bookshelf. Let them know they are welcome and that they will continue to be welcome as long as their behavior remains appropriate. Being creative can avoid a confrontation or a crisis situation."
Influences for and on children are everywhere, yet parents can regulate what a child listens to, watches on television or wears. Parents can also help minimize the negative effects of friendships. "Being there to listen is very important, but in this situation, being observant is even more important as children want to belong, they want to fit in, and they want to have friends and will do so whatever the cost," Berkeley says. "As a parent, you can help them choose friends who will offer the best parts of friendship. Being your child's friend, as well as their parent, can go a long way in helping them become caring, responsible adults."