When I was in high school, I found a friend my parents couldn’t stand. Shy, introverted, studious, and fashion-impaired, I found someone as opposite to myself as my folks could imagine.
My new best friend knew the fashion trends, wore her sweaters tight, flirted with the boys, told risqué jokes, and made it clear that caring about school was for losers. I was forbidden to spend time with her. So our friendship went underground with meeting for coffee at the local ice cream shop or rides in her car when I had told my folks I had to study in the library.
In my case, it wasn’t really a bad choice. My friend’s big secret was that she was really smart and talented. She could be that person with me. I learned how to be a little less scared and a little more outgoing in the shadow of her flamboyant self. Yes, she took me on some adventures that were more than a little foolish. But they also helped me out of my shell.
As I look back, it all looks very tame compared to the things kids do now to be adventuresome and a little bit or a lot rebellious. But the draw of the different is as powerful for teens now as it was for me then. Part of finding out who they are is daring to befriend someone who can widen their world.
Being a parent of a teen these days is tough. We want our kids to expand and grow. We also want to keep them safe. How can we best navigate the tension between those two desires — especially if we are worried about just who our kids are hanging with? Wise parents know that forbidding the friendship is sure to backfire. So what can you do? My advice is to draw those kids in rather than pushing them out.
- Keep the lines of communication open. If you criticize, forbid and offend, your teen will shut down and go under your radar. Curiosity and interest will get you much further than criticism. Be genuinely curious about what they see in their friends and what they enjoy about them. You’ll learn as much about your teen as you will learn about his or her choice of friend.
- Get to know the friends. One of my favorite comic strips is “Zits,” a strip about two middle-aged parents raising a typical 16-year-old named Jeremy. Jeremy’s best friend is Pierce, a kid who is aptly named. He has multiple tattoos. He has ear gauges and piercings in every pierceable spot on his body. He hasn’t taken a real shower since he was 10.He’s harmless, but you’d never know it to look at him. Seeing him means looking past the ink and metal to another kid who is trying to be an individual — just like every other kid with ink and metal. But he’s a smart, loyal friend to Jeremy and opens his world.
Jeremy’s parents apparently have figured it out. They talk to him, and he actually talks to them. He is a frequent visitor to Jeremy’s house, which leads to the next tip:
- Make your home the go-to place. Lay in snacks and appropriate video games. If you have a driveway, put up a hoop or a skateboard ramp. Encourage your teen to invite the group over to watch a big game or awards show. Make your home a place where friends, however strange they may seem, are welcome.Stick around so they know there is an adult presence, but don’t be intrusive. Providing a safe and comfortable place with a well-stocked pantry keeps the kids off the streets and safe. You can’t supervise a teen every minute and let them grow. But if your home is the place the kids (even the kids you have doubts about) hang out, you’ll learn more about what is going on than you otherwise would.
- Get to know the other parents. Make sure to introduce yourself to the other parents if you are doing a pickup or dropoff. Take the time to figure out who shares your parenting values and who doesn’t. Encourage friendships with the families whose values you share. Invite them over for a cookout or a movie night or to go on a hike.When parents are comfortable with each other, they create an important safety net for their teens. If your kid is the “Pierce” of the group, the other parents are more likely to see beyond the costume to the good kid inside.
- Take friends along on day trips and vacations. Your teen will have a better time since there will be a buddy along to talk to. You’ll be able to enjoy your trip without a sullen teen complaining about it. (The complaints are obligatory for any self-respecting teen — even if he or she is enjoying the day.) Meanwhile, you also have some positive influence by taking them out of their bedrooms, away from their computers and on some widening adventures.
- Speak up if you think a kid truly is a bad influence. If your kid’s friends are showing up on the police log, are frequently truant from school and are known about town as drug dealers or as general bad news, it’s more than okay to assert your authority, it’s essential.Engage in a conversation, not a lecture. If the lines of communication are open and functioning, you will be able to talk to your teen about how we are all known by the company we keep. You’ll be able to have a serious discussion about the consequences of making bad choices.
Work with your son or daughter to set some safe limits on the friendship. (Your teen may not admit it, but may even welcome having an excuse to distance from the friend.) Admit that you can’t make your teen drop the friend, but be clear what you will and won’t do if there is trouble. Then stick to those limits so your teen knows you mean it. It’s hard. It’s really hard. But it’s a lot less difficult than visiting your kid in jail, in the hospital or worse.