When my daughter Cheyenne started hanging out with Hannah,* I wasn't concerned. Hannah was polite and well-mannered. Then one day I had to track Cheyenne down because she wasn't where she was supposed to be. I found her at a park, where there happened to be some boys she knew. She and Hannah thought things were OK because they were with friends.
Only it wasn't OK. Cheyenne had broken our rules about hanging out with boys. The park visit was the beginning of other questionable choices Cheyenne made when she was around Hannah. Confronted, she responded, "You don't understand. Nobody understands me but my friends!"
Feeling friends are more important than her family is a natural teen response. As parents, we want our teen to influence her peers to make good decisions, instead of her being influenced to make poor decisions. But steering a child away from those who consistently make poor choices, while opening her eyes to the problem, is hard. Here are a few parenting tools to help:
Focus on your teen's behavior
One of Cheyenne's friends was dressing and acting inappropriately around boys. The more I mentioned this, the more defensive Cheyenne became. She said, "None of my friends are good enough for you." I realized my words were pushing her toward her friends instead of helping her see their character.
Criticizing a teen's friends often makes a teen feel like you're criticizing her. Instead, focus on your teen's behavior. For example, "Do you ever feel pressured to dress like your friend?" Gentle, probing questions that acknowledge her struggles may help lessen the influence. Or address behavior: "Your friends are ignoring our rules. You'll be held responsible for what they do at our house." Comments and questions like these make the same point without a teen feeling attacked.
Set clear boundaries
When a parent sees a friendship forming that may not be the best influence, an initial reaction may be to say no to every request involving that friend. This gives your teen the idea that you don't think she can make good decisions. Instead, let your teen know your concerns and then involve your child in setting boundaries. This will help her accept the consequences.
If your teen says she is going to a football game but you find her hanging out in a mall parking lot, coach her through the mistake she made. Focus on her choice instead of her friends' influence. She was supposed to let you know where she was, so she must face the consequences of her actions.
Remember that group of friends your parents thought was the wrong crowd? How did you act and feel back then? What were the consequences of your choices? When you're not in the midst of a disagreement, tell your teen about your friendships — what you did well and what you did poorly. Don't paint a perfect image of yourself, but be honest and let her see how you interacted with others when you were her age.
If your teen brings up her friends, listen without preaching. These ongoing talks should be more conversational. Try to wrap them up with questions for your teen to consider, based on your situation, not hers. After all, teens learn best when they come to their own conclusions.
Know when to protect
Hannah told a boy not to hang out with Cheyenne, even though Cheyenne liked him. When Cheyenne confronted Hannah, Hannah and her other friends began to bully Cheyenne at school, and it overflowed onto Facebook. After she told me, I suggested, "Maybe it's time to put distance between you and Hannah."
Instead of forcing your teen to immediately end a relationship, suggest she phase out the friendship. The easiest way is for a teen to fill her schedule with other things to do. In many cases, the activities help distance the influence, and your teen will have valid reasons for not hanging out with the person. This will help her practice saying no and make her stronger in her ability to act on what she knows is right.
Sometimes, however, you need to take direct action when careless or dangerous behavior is involved — such as breaking the law, underage drinking or doing drugs. Although your teen may not understand the lasting consequences of her poor choices, you need to keep her from making them.
There isn't an easy way to separate a teen from dangerous friends except to not allow the relationships. Each case will have its own challenges for implementing new boundaries, and teens won't appreciate the interference. Yet the boundary needs to be set, and you have to consistently hold your teen accountable day by day to not spend time with that set of friends.