How to Deal with Your Kid's Weird Friends

Photo: ThinkstockPhoto: ThinkstockBy Corrie Pikul

Your child is hilarious, interesting, clever-frankly, he's all-around delightful. But his friends are ...well, we're all adults here, so let's just come out with it: Some of them are weird. You don't get them, and you suspect that the other grade school students don't either. You want to deal with the situation in the most unobtrusive and sensitive manner possible, and you definitely don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but you don't want to ignore warning signs of an unhealthy and possibly toxic relationship either.

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To find out how to manage this parenting dilemma, we called Matthew Goldfine, PhD, a clinical child psychologist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. He treats children, teens and adults. We asked him for advice on several types of friends.

1. The (Potentially) Bad Influence

How you'd describe them: They act out, make the kinds of poor choices that you're always cautioning your children about, and are often reprimanded by the teacher.
How your child would describe them: "FUN!"

How you should handle this situation: Goldfine says this is the type of friendship that tends to worry parents the most-with good reason. "Studies show that delinquency can be almost contagious," he says. Your task is to figure out what kind of troublemaker this one is. There's no magic trick to help you with this, but you can start with the list of behaviors that are unacceptable to you and your spouse, and if you hear that this new friend is engaging in them-and worse, egging on your kid-then you shouldn't feel bad about breaking up the friendship ASAP. Goldfine says that other warning signs are "clear intentions that this child wants to make other people angry, unhappy or hurt through their actions." Be on the lookout for a child who often responds to a teacher's instructions by shouting, "NO! And you can't make me!" There's a difference between a mean-spirited kid snapping rules in half and posing direct challenges to authority, and a rambunctious or energetic one bending the rules a little.

If you just aren't sure whether this kid is a bad influence, Goldfine strongly advises talking to the other child's parents. Hold off on judging their disciplinary techniques and, instead, fill them in on the kinds of things the kids do when they're at your house. Most likely, they'll reciprocate, which will give you another perspective. If not, you'll get a sense of how involved the parents are. Assume that the parents are as well-meaning as you are and make an effort to build a relationship with them. Be sensitive to the fact that any discussion of either kids' behavior holds such dramatic potential that it was the subject of a Broadway play (the movie version of God of Carnage, with Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, comes out this fall).

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Barring dangerous behavior, Goldfine thinks it's okay to let your (ostensibly good) kid pal around with the class clown or the goofy troublemaker. Worried about how they'll grow into those teen years together? "Just because they're hanging out now doesn't mean they'll be best friends forever," he says.

2. The Unhygienic Kid

How you'd describe them: Remember Pig-Pen, Charlie Brown's filthy friend?
How your child would describe them: "His mom never makes him take a bath."

How you should handle this situation: "These are often the cases where I think it's helpful for parents to supervise and monitor, but maybe not intervene," says Goldfine. Your child is clearly overlooking this other child's flaws. Good for them! Goldfine suggests waiting until the child comes to you and asks why her friend smells funny or wears stained clothes, or talks to you about how the other kids treat him. "This could be a good opportunity to talk about the importance of good hygiene, of wearing clean clothes and of taking care of one's self." He adds that kids are more socially aware than we give them credit for, even if it might take them longer to figure things out.

As long as this child is not in danger, or putting your child's health and safety in jeopardy, step back and let the friendship run its course. He reminds us that the best behavioral models children have are their parents. "What kind of message do you want them to get from you? It's probably something like, 'As long as this person is nice to me and fun to be around, then I don't care about what other kids say.'"

3. The Obsessive

How you'd describe them: They get hung up on things, like insects, or sentient life on Mars, or opening and closing drawers over and over and over...
How your child would describe them: "They have cool toys."

How you should handle the situation: Goldfine says he often hears parents try to diagnose other people's children with psychological or developmental disorders like obsessive-compulsive behavior, autism or Asperger's syndrome. Granted, he practices in Manhattan, where every third person on the subway is either a therapist or on their way to an appointment with one. But this unhelpful habit extends far beyond the city limits. "These are heavy words, and even trained professionals are very careful with how they use them," he says. And what if this is a case of true Asperger's or OCD? "It's not contagious, and there's absolutely no harm to your child in hanging out with another kid who has one of these psychological diagnoses," says Goldfine. "In fact, it's good for them to have a variety of different kinds of friendships."

Goldfine reminds us to be aware of the impression that we're giving our kids when we criticize their friends-they really pick up on those signals. When deciding how to deal with a child whose creepy behavior bothers you more than it does your daughter or son, recall Mad Men and how Betty Draper dealt with her daughter Sally's friendship with the creepy neighborhood boy, Glen. Betty forbade Sally from hanging out with Glen, which only made Sally more eager to spend time with him. Even worse, Betty's actions made her look like an insensitive mom, pushing Sally further away.

KEEP READING: How to deal with hangers-on and more...

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