Elizabeth Berger, M.D., Child Psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character, counsels families and children on a regular basis. She shares valuable insight for parents who are concerned about bad friends.
As parents, we like to keep a close eye on the circle of friends that surround our kids. In the event that they hang around kids we'd consider "bad friends," we are immediately concerned for our children, but the friends they pick may give us valuable insight to their own lives. "The kinds of friends that a youngster tends to make are a good reflection of the child's own sense of identity, wishes, and worries," says Dr. Berger. "Looking at the kinds of friends that children make is often a good way for parents to peek into their child's own sense of identity."
We all know that appearances can be deceiving, so how can you tell if your child's friends are bad news? Dr. Berger suggests carefully observing your child's behavior. "Red flags include drug and alcohol use, poor grades, legal difficulties, aggression and withdrawal," she says. If you are noticing these signs, there's a good chance a peer group is having a negative influence, but that's probably only part of the story. "Hanging with the wrong crowd is a sign of underlying difficulties, but it doesn't necessarily explain what the underlying difficulties are or how to address them fully," says Berger.
Since children gravitate towards troubled kids when they are feeling troubled, it doesn't make much sense to simply address their choice of friends. Parents need to drill a little deeper to uncover the heart of the child's problems. Why are they feeling isolated, sad or rebellious?
Understanding their mentality will give you the best opportunity to refocus their relationships in a positive way. "Addressing the comprehensive problems may involve helping a troubled youngster to make friends with a different group of young people who have more constructive goals," advises Dr. Berger.
Parents must take care not to ostracize their kids when addressing the issue of bad influences. Always approach them with sensitivity. "Encouraging your child to construct 'what if?' scenarios can help her recognize the dynamic of bad influences and avoid some of its pitfalls," says Berger. "Sometimes a younger, weaker youngster becomes the pawn of an older troubled youngster and is really more exploited than supported by the friendship. Here the parent may need to take fairly firm action."
Dr. Berger warns against attacking the friendship and acknowledges that the bad influence probably has some redeeming qualities. Still, she advises:
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