Guidance Dealing with Children's Friends

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Taken from: Growing Concerns- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Several readers have asked me for guidance when it comes to issues involving their children's friends. Hanging out with friends is an important part of growing up. It gives children a chance to learn and practice lifelong social skills and, of course, just to have a lot of plain old fun. But what if your child's good buddy is someone you really don't like? Maybe you think this friend is a bad influence on your child. Or perhaps you just find the friend irritating beyond belief. How can you express your concerns and provide necessary parental guidance while still respecting your child's right to have opinions (and friends) that don't always match your own views? Here are some steps and guidelines you can adapt for your own children, whatever their ages. Each step requires careful thought and discussion, not only addressing the immediate concern, but demonstrating for your child a respectful approach to social problem solving.

* First, carefully assess your own reasons for being concerned about this friend. Does she bring out the worst in your child? Does he just need some clear guidelines on how to behave at your house? Are you worried that the child is from a family with values very different from yours? Or are your concerns superficial? For example, does the way the child dresses or act remind you of your annoying Uncle Henry?

* Second, solicit your child's feelings about the friend. Ask and be willing to really listen to why your child chooses to spend time with this person. Perhaps your child sees real value in this friend that you just haven't seen. On the other hand, your child may be uneasy with the friendship but may not know how to get out of it. Or, especially during adolescence, your child may be experimenting with different kinds of friends as a way of seeking his or her own identity. Sometimes this is a harmless part of adolescent development. However, a sudden change of friends could signal a struggle with depression or other emotional problems during the teen years, especially if there is also a drop in grades or a loss of interest in other activities.

* Next, in a calm, clear manner, express your concern about the friendship. Be as specific as possible about the behaviors that bother you. Keep in mind that an attitude of concern for your child's well-being is more effective than anger or accusation. In fact, especially with adolescents, an authoritarian approach (e.g., "don't ever see that person again!") may just strengthen your child's resolve to stay in the friendship.

* Finally, based on what you discover through the above steps, provide ground rules, expectations and a plan of action. This may mean that you clarify rules about how your child and the friend will behave and identify consequences in case those rules are violated. You may decide that a meeting with the other child's parents would be a good step toward figuring out how to make the friendship more acceptable. (They may even think your child is the bad influence!) Or you and your child might conclude that the friendship is not in anyone's best interest and spend some time practicing how to ease out of it. Whatever action you decide to take, you will have shown respect for your child's point of view and a willingness to communicate your own feelings in a caring and straightforward manner. That is an important lesson in itself.

The Children, Youth and Family Consortium invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 3 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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