Now that your kid’s a teenager, friends matter more than ever. This is great, as long as it’s those buddies that bring out the best in your kid. But at some point your teen will pick a new friend that you can’t stand, one that is clearly a bad influence. Maybe she smokes. Maybe she drinks. Maybe she's just got a bad attitude. The worst part is, you can’t just put your foot down and end it like you did in preschool. Some folks will say you just better get used to it.
If this advice sounds impossible, you’re not alone. No loving parent wants to watch a good kid stray into bad habits—and no teacher does either. Over seventeen years in the classroom, I saw countless kids and parents wringing their hands over bad friendships. Here’s the good news: though you may feel powerless, you can actually help a lot. While it’s true that you can’t control your teen’s choices in friends, you should expect to coach them. How? Here are three guidelines to follow:
- Start with Safety. Whether your child is six or sixteen, the health and safety of your child should still be your main concern. If someone has just invited your kid, say, on a late-night helmetless motorcycle ride, you have only one course of action: to say a strong, unbending no—followed with, “Because I love you, and that choice isn’t safe.” You may agree to discuss this further, but under no circumstances should you change your mind. Good coaches know the rules, and enforce them.
- Listen. Once you are sure that safety isn’t the prime issue, it’s time to talk. You’ll need to identify challenges, but help your child call the key plays. Instead of focusing on the trouble you see, ask calmly about what is working in the friendship. What’s nice about the kid? What do you do for fun together? You may be amazed by what you didn’t know…and things may be much better than you thought. No matter how worried you feel, thank your child for confiding in you. It’s sign of trust, and you can feel proud about that.
- Talk about your concerns and values rather than your anger.Even after listening hard for good things, you may feel certain that this new “friend” is a disaster waiting to happen. But tough as your teen may seem, he or she might just as worried as you are. Bad friendships can burn, but the surest way to cement one is to blow your stack and call it off. It’s much easier for kids to say, “My dad is so mean,” than, “This friendship is a problem that I need to fix.” This is a good time to talk with your kid about values like loyalty, comfort, and respect.
Of course, none of these tactics can guarantee that the problem will go away. But by choosing to coach rather than control, you really are doing what’s best for your child. While slowly letting go, you’re also staying profoundly connected. Although your thanks right now may be a set of rolled eyes, stick with it. In the long run, you can take pride in having raised a compassionate, resilient kid who has learned how to pick friends, and how to be one as well.