As parents, obviously we want to steer our kids away from toxic friendships. Read more: Parenting Advice - Toxic …By Valerie Frankel
My daughter Lucy's friend - let's call her Maleficent - gleefully told her this story: She and some other kids spent an afternoon hurling snowballs at passing cars. One driver was so surprised by the attack that his car jumped the curb and hit a tree. After the accident, instead of checking to make sure the driver was OK, Maleficent (then 10) and her pack ran away. "It was so funny!" she told Lucy.
Now, Maleficent might have been lying. She'd been known to exaggerate to get attention. But I felt horror at the possibility that her story was even a little bit true. Lucy, for her part, didn't quite know how to respond. Was the snowball ambush cool - or criminal? I imagined a scenario in which Maleficent seduced Lucy into joining in. "Come on," she'd say, handing Lucy a snowball. "It's fun!" Shudder.
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My initial inclination was to cut off Lucy's contact with Maleficent, as in: "That kid is a future psycho, and you're forbidden to see her again!" I didn't deliver that speech, though. Banning contact seemed bound to backfire. So, what to do? Not saying something seemed irresponsible, but would my interfering make the girls gang up on me?
As parents, obviously we want to steer our kids away from toxic friendships. But sorting out which are the rotten apples, opening our kids' eyes to what concerns us, and phasing out a dangerous friendship is tricky. So what, if anything, can we do to protect our children from the Maleficents of the world? Here, what I've learned:
Define "Bad Friend"
What should raise your hackles? You have to forgive conflicts of taste and focus on genuine red flags, behaviors that display flawed morals and values. Yes, fear the troublemakers. "Kids do take bigger risks when they're together," says Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia and author of You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25. He and a team of researchers examined teen brain activity while kids played a driving game either with friends in the room or while alone. "When friends were nearby, teens took greater risks, running red lights and crashing," he notes. "Scans proved that the reward center of the brain gets hyper-aroused when peers are present."
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Also worry about social climbers; they may be the worst influence of all. "The more kids care about being popular, the more aggressive they are," says Robert Faris, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of California, Davis, who recently conducted a study of 3,700 eighth, ninth, and 10th graders about popularity, peer pressure, and meanness. "They viewed aggression as a way to maintain social status," he says. By "aggression" he means bullying, either physical or verbal. The behavior is contagious," warns Faris.
How to Phase Out A Problem Friend
So what to do if a bad seed suddenly goes into heavy rotation among your little darling's pals? Fortunately, "most kids under 12 can be brought into line," says Edward Hallowell, M.D., a psychiatrist in Sudbury, MA, and author of several books on parenting. "If a friend comes over and behaves badly, you have to intervene; then have a talk with your child about him. Parents often make the mistake of accommodating a friend's bad conduct for fear of hurting their child socially. But that can be a tacit endorsement." Think about it this way: "Kids count on their parents to have high standards for their friendships; any child under 12 is not old enough to make these decisions solo," says parenting expert Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness.
But how do you talk so your child will listen? Dr. Hallowell's advice is to keep it simple: "Say, 'That kid is rude. He kicks the coffee table even after I tell him to stop. I don't like that about him. Help me understand: What do you like about him?' After a frank conversation with your child, maybe he won't want to spend as much time with the unruly friend."
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When your kid responds to your questions, you'll learn not only about the friend, but also about your own child. Your son might have hooked up with a video game junkie because, as he'll explain (hard swallow), the geek is the only kid at school who talks to him. "When having a conversation with your child, listen as much as you talk," says Carter.
Also, cautions Steinberg, "don't label the kid; label the bad behavior. Give a good reason for not liking [the friend], and your child may well respect it. Kids really do care what you think." You can say, "When Billy comes over, you play a lot of violent video games, so I'd rather you spent less time with him." Some friendships won't be uprooted with mere talk, however. "Sometimes subterfuge can be a parent's best friend," says Dr. Hallowell. "Plan weekend visits to your relatives to avoid sleepovers. Schedule doctor's appointments during their usual playdate afternoons. Hover whenever the kid comes over." Also, know that the friendship will probably fade. "Most connections don't last long," says Steinberg. "There's a lot of instability in friendship during childhood. If you don't like your kid's friend, one wise strategy is to back off and let the friendship run its course."
Next: What to do during the teen years
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