In With the “In” Crowd

Something has changed in the past year, though you can’t quite put your finger on it. He has started cutting classes, his clothes have changed, and his grades are dropping. His best friend smokes, drinks, and stays out all night with no parental supervision. Has your child fallen in with the “wrong crowd”?

Many aspects of teenage life influence your children’s behavior – parents, teachers, friends, and the media are just a few. But a teenager’s peer group has the power to dramatically change your child, in both positive and negative ways. If your child has befriended a trouble-maker, here are a few warning signs and tips on what to do, and what not to do, to get your child back on track.

Warning Signs
There are common signs that a teenager has been exposed to unhealthy peer influences:

  • Your teen suddenly stops spending time with all of her old friends and begins socializing with an entirely new group
  • Sudden drop in school performance, or cutting classes
  • Sudden change in clothing style or color, jewelry or accessories, or makeup
  • Changes in your teen’s tone, mannerisms, or the way she speaks
  • Your teen is suddenly sullen, withdrawn, or secretive
  • Your teen asks to go places or do things that never used to interest him
  • Your teen gets phone calls at odd hours or begins spending more time on the computer

If your teen is exhibiting some or all of these behaviors, get involved immediately. The biggest mistake you can make is assuming it’s “just a phase” that he’ll “grow out of.” Of course, the teenage years are a time of sometimes quick, drastic change that can occur for any number of reasons, but erring on the side of caution will set your mind at ease and show your teen how much you care.

What Is a Parent to Do?
A number of factors impact a teen’s ability to stay away from undesirable influences, such as: feeling loved and nurtured, self-confidence, academic achievement in school, developing a conscience, parental monitoring, having an intact family unit, positive role models, appropriate social skills, and peer acceptance. Parents have the unique capacity to arm their children with good instincts to listen to their gut feelings, say “no” at the right times, and choose friends who will make them feel good about themselves. Following these simple dos and don’ts is a good starting point for parents:

DO Strike Up a Non-Judgmental Conversation. Teenagers are at that critical age when they crave independence and freedom, but are still insecure, lacking confidence, and seeking validation. They look to their peer group to feel accepted and understood. If you’ve noticed major changes in your child’s appearance, behavior, or academic performance, sit down with him and try to have a calm conversation about what’s happening. Keep in mind that criticism will be perceived as an attack on his developing judgment and he may resort to secrecy to appease you. So, stay focused on the real issues such as dropping grades, a depressive attitude, or problems at school rather than launching a personal attack.

If you instantly attack the disposition or behavior of the friend or group, your teen will likely become defensive and shut down the conversation. If a calm conversation doesn’t get you anywhere, be honest and mention the changes you’ve noticed since he started hanging out with this person. Then give your teen time to cool down and process the dialogue.

Often, parents assume teens know how to create healthy friendships and leave them to fend for themselves. In reality, teens may not understand the path they are on with this new peer group, or they may need help cultivating constructive bonds with others. By offering your support and guidance along with the freedom to make mistakes, your child will be well-positioned to resist negative peer pressure.

According to some experts, peer influence peaks between 11 and 14 years of age. By high school, teens have developed a stronger sense of self and can resist the temptation to do anything to fit in. Keeping the lines of communication open can help your teen replace negative influences with positive ones.

DON’T Forbid Contact. Don’t take drastic measures to prevent your teen from spending time with the negative influence. The more you protest the friendship, the more attractive that friend becomes. Of course, if the friend is endangering your child’s health or future by encouraging the use of drugs, shoplifting, or engaging in other illegal activities, you may need to take more aggressive action.

DO Encourage Outside Interests. Encourage your child to seek out healthy friendships through special classes, interests, or hobbies, or even a part-time job. Finding activities that suit him will help build confidence and lead to greater success in life.

DO Show Unconditional Love and Support. Value your kids and show them you value yourself by living an emotionally and physically healthy lifestyle. Do everything you can to make your child feel wanted, loved, and valued, not by buying them everything their heart desires but by spending time with them, listening when they speak, and paying attention to their lives.

DON’T Run From the Problem. Don’t force your child to change schools to “escape” the bad crowd. Unless your teen is genuinely seeking a fresh start, she’ll simply find the rebellious crew at the new school as well.

DO Get to Know Your Child’s Friends. A teen’s peer group is incredibly important in her life. Healthy peers provide friendship, examples of positive behavior, advice, and encouragement and can help develop social skills. Remember, many teen friendships are transitory – teens often need to “try out” new friends and peer groups in the same way they try out new fashions, musical tastes, and entertainment preferences. Try to base your judgments about your child’s friends on facts rather than emotions or personal perceptions. Make an effort to meet her friends’ parents and encourage “hang out time” at your house, so you can get to know your child’s friends one on one.

DO Get Help. If your teen is struggling with schoolwork, find a tutor or speak with her teacher about any changes in grades or behavior. And be sure schoolwork doesn’t become the entire focal point of her life. Without time for fun and developing interests, your teen will become one boring, dissatisfied adult.

Peer pressure is a part of human nature, but teens that lack self-confidence and social skills or are inexperienced with peer pressure may be more likely to seek their peers’ approval by giving in to a risky challenge or suggestion. The adoption of a negative peer group is likely an indication of problems that have been under the surface for quite some time. Get to the root of the problem by talking to your teen or seeking professional help rather than simply addressing the symptom – the trouble-making friend.

A popular option for parents who need help managing a troubled teen is a wilderness camp or therapeutic boarding school. These programs have proven effective in treating and rehabilitating teens struggling with behavioral and/or emotional problems, including substance abuse, depression, aggression, low self-esteem, or learning disabilities.