How can I help my child to form good friendships and to resist harmful peer pressure?

Friendships can affect many areas of young adolescents' lives--grades, how they spend their time, what clubs they join and how they behave in public places, such as a shopping mall. Youngsters who have trouble forming friendships are more likely to have poor self-esteem, do poorly in school, drop out, get involved in delinquent behavior and suffer from a range of psychological problems as adults.

Nurture FriendshipsChildren of all ages need to feel that they fit in--that they belong. As children approach the teen years, the need to be "one of the gang" is stronger than at any other age. Friendships become closer and more important and play a key part in allowing young adolescents to sort out who they are and where they're headed. They are likely to form small groups or cliques, each with a special identity (for example, jocks, brains, preppies or geeks).

Many parents worry that their children's friends will become so influential in their lives that their own roles will diminish. Parents worry still more that their children's friends will encourage them to take part in harmful activities.

Studies by psychologist Thomas Berndt and his colleagues have shown that friends do influence one another's attitudes and behavior and that, over time, friends become more and more similar in their attitudes and behavior. For example, adolescents whose friends described themselves as more disruptive in school increased in disruption themselves over the school year.

The peak period for peer influence is generally from seventh to ninth grades. During this time, friends often influence taste in music, clothes or hairstyles, as well as the activities in which youngsters choose to participate. However, peers do not replace parents.You are still the most important influence in your child's life. Young teens are more inclined to turn to their parents than to peers for guidance in deciding what post-high-school plans to make, what career to select and what religious and moral values to choose. This influence is greatest when the bond between parent and child is strong.

Here are some tips to guide you in helping your child to form good friendships:

Recognize that peer pressure can be bad or good. Most young teens are drawn to friends who are similar to them. If your child chooses friends who are not interested in school and who make poor grades, he may be less willing to study or complete assignments. If he chooses friends who like school and do well in their studies, however, his motivation to get good grades may be strengthened. Friends who avoid alcohol and drugs also will exert a positive influence on your child.

Get to know your child's friends. A good way to learn about your child's friends is to drive them to events--talking with them in the car can reveal a lot. You can also welcome your child's friends into your home. Make it a place with food and a comfortable atmosphere. Having your child's friends at your home can provide you with peace of mind and allow you to set the rules of conduct, as well as help you to gain a better understanding of what they talk about and what their concerns are.

Get to know the parents of your child's friends. You don't have to be best buddies, but it helps to know if other parents' attitudes and approaches to parenting are similar to yours. Former principal Carole Kennedy explains, "The kid may seem okay, but you need to know if someone is around at the other house to supervise." Knowing the other parent makes it easier to learn what you need to know: where your child is going, who she's going with, what time the activity starts and ends, whether an adult will be present and how your child will get to and from the activity.

Provide your child with some unstructured time in a safe place to hang around with friends. Activities are important, but too many piano lessons or basketball practices can lead to burnout. Allowing your child some unstructured time with friends in a safe place with adult supervision lets him share ideas and develop important social skills. For example, among friends your child can learn that good friends are good listeners, that they are helpful and confident (but not overly so), that they are enthusiastic, possess a sense of humor and that they respect others. Spending time with others may also help your child to change some behaviors that make others uncomfortable around him: being too serious or unenthusiastic, critical of others or too stubborn.

Talk with your child about friends, about friendship and about making choices. It's normal for adolescents to care about what others think of them. This makes it especially important for you to talk with your youngster about resisting the pressure to disobey the rules or go against the standards and values that she has been taught. You can talk with her about how to be a good friend and about how all friendships have their ups and downs. You can also talk about the importance of making good choices when she is with friends. "I always tell them, 'If it feels wrong, it probably is,'" explains teacher Barbara Braithwaite. Teacher Charles Summers tells his middle school students and his own children, "You need to look at who you are when you are with this person." He also suggests that they ask themselves this question: "How do you want to be described by others?" Children's responses can guide their behavior.

Teach your child how to get out of a bad situation. Talk with your child about dangerous or inappropriate situations that might arise and about possible ways to handle them. Ask your 14-year-old daughter what she would do if a guest arrived at a slumber party with a bottle of wine in her overnight bag. Ask your 12-year-old son how he would handle a suggestion from a friend to cut school and head for a nearby burger place.

Ideally, youngsters themselves can be the ones to say "no" to a potentially dangerous or destructive situation. But if they haven't yet learned this skill, parent Marianne Cavanaugh from Connecticut suggests an alternative: "Sometimes kids don't want to do what their peers want them to do. I tell my kids to blame me--to tell their friends that their Mom says 'no.' This helps get them off the hook." Finally, no child going out for an evening should be without change for a phone call. As a last resort, this may be his lifeline. A cell phone may also be appropriate if family finances allow one and if the child knows how to use the phone responsibly.

Monitor friendships to help your child avoid risky and unhealthy behavior. Young adolescents need supervision, including during the important after-school hours. Keep tabs on who your child's friends are and what they do when they get together. Bill Gangl, a middle school teacher in Minnesota, suggests, "Don't be afraid to be the jerk who makes the phone call to the other house to make sure that (your child) is there. And don't be afraid to say no."

Many middle school teachers and parents have different opinions as to whether parents can or should try to stop their children from seeing a friend that the parents dislike. Some youngsters will rebel if told they can't spend time with certain friends. Many adults who have worked with young teens suggest that you let your child know that you disapprove of a friendship and why you disapprove. They also suggest that you limit the amount of time and the activities that you will allow with the friend.

Model good friendships. The example of friendship you provide has a bigger impact on your child's friendships than any lecture. Children who see their parents treat each other and their friends with kindness and respect have an advantage. Baking cookies for the new neighbor or offering a listening ear for an unhappy friend sends your child a powerful message.

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