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How Do You Stop Your Teen from Keeping Bad Company?

How to help your teen make good friends

A father once witnessed his 16-year-old son getting bullied by his friends, or at least peers his son considered to be his friends. Then it all came together for the father: The house party he had grounded his son for allegedly throwing at their home when he was out of town was not his son’s idea. He realized that his son must have been peer pressured into hosting the party. After all, such a level of assertiveness and charisma had never been what his son was known for.

His instincts were to ban his son from hanging out with these so-called friends. However, he knew this would never work. Not only would his son continue to associate with them at school, but every time he would leave the house, to supposedly visit an approved peer or go for a walk in the park, he would take that opportunity to visit his so-called friends. It was at this point the father found himself at a loss of what to do and sought help.

The problem of teens associating with peers whom their parents and other concerned adults consider to be troubled at best and toxic at worst is nothing new. It gets worse in cases like this, when parents witness their teen get poorly treated by his friends only to discover that he is now experimenting with drug use. In the example I gave above, the father is right: Taking a hard-line approach would only make things worse for his son. Fortunately for parents in this position, there is an approach they can take which is likely to open an opportunity for dialogue with their teen regarding a topic as sensitive as teen friendships.

The following is a guideline on how to address the topic with your teen. Keep in mind: If your teen is hanging around a group of peers, who habitually put him down, it is indicative that your teen is struggling with self-esteem issues. This means that he will likely experience a lot of embarrassment in having a conversation with you and will seek to temper his feelings of embarrassment through deflection and lies. Therefore, you want to be sensitive with your teen regarding how you address the topic, and you want to be sensitive to the possibility that he may perceive that you see him as a failure. You want to take a pragmatic tone in your conversation. Specifically, regarding the consequences, you see his association with these peers would fetch him.

Here are some conversation starters:

  • So, I met your new friends the other day and I am curious: They do seem different from your old friends. What is it about these kids you find appealing?
  • How do you see your friends treating you?
  • Do you feel comfortable when you are around your friends?
  • Do you guys have anything in common?
  • Are you trying to change anything about yourself? I mean, are you satisfied with yourself?
  • Do you feel you can be yourself around your new friends?

You want to hold back from sharing all your observations with your teen the first you have this conversation with him because he is naturally going to be embarrassed and on the defensive. Further, in response to your questions and conversation starters, your teen will likely simply lie and paint for you a fantasy-based narrative.

It is important that you exercise emotional restraint and patience because your goal is to listen between the lines to get a sense of who your teen is really trying to be. For males, the association with troubled peers is likely associated with a desire for more respect and credibility, while for females the association with troubled peers is likely associated with a desire for inclusion and support.

Using the information you gathered from your teen, begin the process of documenting observable inconsistencies regarding his new-found relationships and the narrative he gave you. Then, slowly, gently bring to his attention your observation about these inconsistencies.

On average with this technique, it takes about three to four weeks before your teen begins the process of letting go of his feelings of shame and embarrassment and opening to you about his struggles and most likely his overwhelming sense of confusion regarding his current choices. Once this happens, you have an opportunity to gently steer your teen in a healthier direction and reach some important agreements with him.

Using this technique does not mean that you should not give your teen reasonable consequences for obviously bad behaviors and decisions. It is simply important that you adopt a nonjudgmental and matter-of-fact tone when addressing concerns and consequences with your teen.