What To Do When Your Child’s Friend Is A Bad Influence On Them

You may be quick to criticize your child's friend, but experts recommend a few other things instead.
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Our children learn their first lessons in right and wrong from us, their parents. We impart our values by telling them what to do and not to do, and, more powerfully, by example. How they see us treating others is the way that our children tend to treat people in their own lives.

But as kids enter school and start to spend less time under our direct supervision, the center of their universe shifts away from parents. The thoughts and opinions of their peers increasingly exert a pull on them as they make their way toward adolescence.

All of this is healthy and normal, but it can be tricky for parents trying to figure out their role. What should we do if one peer in particular seems to be wielding a negative influence? How should we bring this up with our children, while maintaining respect for their independence and encouraging them to solve problems on their own?

Here, two experts share tips for parents who are navigating this situation.

Pay attention to any changes in your child.

Even if they’re not telling you everything that goes on during their day, you know your kid. If you feel like something is “off,” then that’s worth paying attention to.

“You might notice a change in your child’s attitude, behavior or personality,” pediatric psychologist Ann-Louise Lockhart told HuffPost.

“You might also see changes in how they approach school, grades, academics and their future goals,” Lockhart said. “Their appearance, interests or hobbies might be impacted as well. They might also be less interested in prior friendships, and act negatively around friends and family.”

Of course, your child’s friendships will ebb and flow, and you can’t — and shouldn’t — try to stay on top of every little shift. It’s important that your child has an opportunity to learn how to navigate conflict and changes in their relationships with peers.

“Friendships are dynamic and while one day things may seem rocky, another day they may be great,” Aliza Pressman, a psychologist and the author of “The 5 Principles of Parenting,” explained to HuffPost.

“If we are invested in daily changes, it would be unsustainable and potentially hovering,” she said.

However, if you notice that your child’s mood shifts or they behave differently around one particular friend, that’s something worth further examination.

We tend to think of a friend’s bad influence as involving substance abuse, but there are other ways that kids can bring each other down.

“Some other negative influences include the way they speak to adults in their lives (teachers, parents, grandparents, coaches), as well as peers and siblings,” Lockhart said. “This can include making more negative, insulting or judgmental statements. It can include making fun of other people’s appearance or trying to shame or embarrass them in front of others.”

Changes like these are worth paying attention to, but you don’t want to open the conversation by telling your child that you think a friend is a bad influence on them.

Start by listening.

To gain a better understanding of the situation, it’s important that you are able to listen, without judgment, to what your child tells you about their friendship. They may need you to simply act as a sounding board rather than give advice.

“Err on the side of giving silent space for your kid to talk to you, and hold off on questions until you can honestly seem agenda-free,” Pressman advised.

“Most of the time, school-aged and certainly middle school and older kids do not need us to intervene unless they are being bullied or bullying someone,” she said.

Pressman also suggested that parents ask directly, “Do you think you want me to help out with this, or do you feel like you want to vent to me but not have me say anything?”

Kids can often lead themselves to a solution. It may take nothing more than gentle eye contact and a few well-timed nods from you, or a couple of phrases to encourage them to keep going, such as “What makes you say that?” and “Tell me more.”

Make observational statements.

You may have a few words in mind to describe your child’s friend, but keep anything that bears a judgment out of your conversation with your child. Instead, stick to the facts. What have you noticed? How is your child different?

Lockhart suggested that you say something like “I notice you’ve been spending a lot of time with X. ... I’m concerned about how you seem to have changed since you’ve been spending more time together. I notice you spend more time in your room, exclude your sister from things you used to like doing together, and your grades have dropped.”

When you withhold your own judgment, it gives your child an opportunity to respond without getting defensive of their own actions or their friend. This increases the odds that they’ll see something in a new light as a result of your conversation.

Ask curious questions.

Again, it’s important to set your own opinions aside and signal that you are truly open to changing your opinion based on what your child tells you.

“Try asking with curiosity and making observations with neutrality, versus lecturing and sounding judgmental,” Pressman advised.

One strategy to facilitate this is to start phrases with the words “I wonder.” For example, Pressman offered, “I wonder how you are feeling about Sally. I noticed you both have been bickering a lot lately.” Observations phrased this way “allow our kids to think about how they feel and come up with some observations and solutions with us,” she said.

Lockhart emphasized the need to figure out what it is that your child is gaining from this friendship. “Find out why your child likes this friend,” she said. “Look for themes. Does this friend help your child feel included, accepted, noticed or popular? Notice what your child gets out of this friendship they felt was missing from their life before.” It’s crucial to have this information as you support your child in their problem-solving.

Basic questions about your child’s relationship with the friend can help you understand their dynamic. Lockhart suggested these: “What do you like about your friend? What do you have in common? What do you like doing together?”

After having these conversations with your kid and expressing your concerns about their changed mood or behavior, it’s important that you stand back and let them handle the next steps on their own.

“This gives your child the opportunity to learn how to critically think about the people in their lives, how to practice good judgment and decision-making skills, and then follow through,” Lockhart said. “It’s tough as a parent to watch your child struggle, but it’s a very important future life skill.”

She suggested that parents say something supportive but nonprescriptive, such as “This friendship seems very important to you. I’ve expressed my thoughts on it and how I feel like it’s affecting you. I encourage you to look at the pros and cons of this friendship. I’m here to support you through it. I’m here for you.”

Don’t criticize other kids, or their parents.

It can be incredibly tempting to say judgmental things about another child or their parent, but you should keep these thoughts to yourself, or perhaps vent them to a therapist or trusted friend.

You can’t ever know the whole story regarding any other child or parent, Lockhart said.

Rather than judging, she suggested that you “empathize with others, understand they are impacted by multiple life circumstances, and then stay in your lane.”

Your focus should be on your own child and giving them support as they manage the situation.

Don’t hesitate to take action when it’s warranted.

If you suspect that your child may be getting bullied, or bullying others, then you absolutely do need to step in.

“In general, if someone in a socially powerful position is persistently and intentionally cruel and enlists others, it’s time to intervene,” Pressman said.

This might involve contacting another child’s parents or reaching out to a teacher, school counselor or coach for help managing the situation.

In the same way that you just know when something is amiss with your kid, you will also know things have become dire “when you feel like you’re losing your child,” Lockhart explained.

In such a case, present your actions as a way to protect your child rather than a prohibition on the friendship.

“You’re too important to me to lose you to an unhealthy friendship,” Lockhart suggested saying.

“That’s the true message,” she said. “It’s not that you’re ruining their life by intervening, but you care and love them too much to watch them be negatively impacted.”

Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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