Friendly Reminder

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

June 6, 2008 4 min read


Parents should know their children's acquaintances

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

Copley News Service

If you think your teen hangs out with the wrong crowd, you're not alone. If you think you can do something about it, you may be right - but only up to a point.

"Parents can't pick their child's friends," says Stephen M. Gavazzi, a human development and family science professor at Ohio State University and co-director of its Center for Family Research. But, he adds, that doesn't mean the situation is beyond their control. Parents who make an extra effort to know their child's friends and their parents will have a better chance of steering their offspring away from the wrong crowd. You also can make them less vulnerable by encouraging your children to participate in sports, clubs and other time-intensive activities.

The desire for privacy and independence are hallmarks of becoming an adolescent, observes Tedd Habberfield, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Buffalo, New York. Those rites of passage make it harder for parents to determine if their children are simply trying to take more responsibility for themselves or are intentionally hiding something parents would forbid or challenge.

"I would become concerned when a child totally shuts parents out, becomes disrespectful and rejecting of family values and parental authority. Usually, this indicates that the child has a new reference group and that the new group does not share those values," Habberfield says.

Ironically, the peer group's values may reflect what your child has learned from you, contends Dr. Hans Steiner, professor of psychology and human development at Stanford University's Packard Children's Hospital.

"Kids select peer groups according to standards built into their heads, values that have been in the making for some time. Parents are powerful social models. If you use drugs or drink alcohol, your child may choose friends who do the same thing. What you do overrides what you say," Steiner maintains.

Child-behavior experts say parents should seek help if their child:

- Suddenly does poorly in school.

- Skips classes.

- Undergoes a personality change.

- Is disrespectful to parents, teachers and other adults.

- Defies parental authority or shuts them out altogether.

- Does drugs, drinks or commits crimes.

If your child displays such behavior and won't talk to you, try a sibling or trusted family friend. You may need help from a clergyman, psychologist or social worker, or may have to place your child in a residential treatment program.

Elementary schoolchildren have problems, too. They also may test your parental authority, but "isolated incidents don't mean much," Steiner says. If your young child consistently displays bad behavior, you need to find the source of the problem. It could be peer related, such as being bullied at school. "Younger children need more guidance and direct advice," he explains.

Listening to your child will help them avoid making bad choices in friends, says Habberfield. "Most kids in trouble do not expect that we will listen. If an adult does listen, the child tends to self disclose. Obviously, it helps if we have listened all along, because problems rarely get out of hand if we have."

The best way to stop your child from getting involved with the wrong crowd, he says, is getting an early start. "It's important to talk with our children about their friends from the time they first start to choose them. Helping them learn to determine the differences between a friend who truly cares about them and someone likely to take advantage of or otherwise harm them is essential training as we prepare them for the teen and adult world."

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