Do you remember the intensity of making friends and developing friendships when you were young – the agony and ecstasy of searching and finding your friendship group? You probably found a few ‘bad’ friends along the way that your parents (or even your peers) disapproved of, either because they appeared to have a negative influence on you, because they were a bit wayward or different, or because they genuinely caused trouble.
You might also remember clashing with your parents over this kind of friend’s bad influence. Chances are, your parents’ opposition only pushed you further towards your friend, and that’s completely natural. As we progress through childhood and teenage years into adulthood, we learn to make our own judgements – some will be correct, others a total disaster, but we should all gain more autonomy as we age and mature.
So how can you manage these ‘bad’ friendships as a parent or carer? When should you intervene? It can feel like a minefield.
Sound Out Other Opinions
Use other parents and carers as a sounding board to put your feelings in context. Have they met the friend in question? Do they have any concerns? These conversations are more fruitful if your child is a pre-teen, as you’ll have more contact with other parents and you’re all more likely to have met the dodgy friend at playdates or birthday parties.
The older your child, the less you’ll be let into their lives, but that doesn’t stop you talking to fellow parents and sharing advice. Forums like Mumsnet, Netmums and Gransnet can be useful. There are plenty of parents and carers who have been in your shoes and can share their experiences of tackling peer pressure and intense friendships.
Also talk to any older siblings, neighbours or cousins of your child, who may be able to weigh in and share their insight. If your child shuts down your initial conversations about the bad friend, they may open up to someone closer in age.
Welcome the Friend into Your Space
Show willing by welcoming the ‘bad’ friend at home or on trips out, so you can get to know them. This helps your relationship with your child, too, by showing you aren’t dismissing their friend outright.
If you suspect your child is drinking, smoking or similar because of this friend, having them under your roof could seem counter-productive, but you can potentially supervise from a distance, knowing where they are. We emphasise ‘from a distance’ here, because turning into an amateur spy is not going to help matters.
By sharing space with your child’s ‘bad’ friend, you may even change your preconceptions of them. Someone who initially comes across as rude or loud may just be socially awkward. Of course, getting to know the friend also means you may meet their parents, which can help matters further.
Be Curious but Respectful of Boundaries with Older Children
You’ll never stop worrying about your child – that’s the blessing and curse of being a parent – but you must remember they will reveal less about their lives as teenagers than they did when they were five or 10 years old. You may have to handle a Kevin the Teenager figure for a few years.
With hormones flooding their bodies and a shedload of exams to get through, not to mention the modern preoccupations of social media and the internet, teenagers feel under intense pressure to do everything and be everything. Though they sometimes act supremely confident, they are highly sensitive. If they feel you’re prying too much into their lives, you’ll know about it.
Keep a healthy level of interest in their hobbies, wellbeing, achievements and failures, but please don’t become a helicopter parent or cling to a nostalgic view of your child. They are casting off their childhood mould and developing their own personality, which is a case of trial and error. By all means, share things they may enjoy that don’t involve the friend, but don’t expect to be your child’s number one confidante.
Put Things in Perspective: Will This Jeopardise Their Future?
If your child’s behaviour becomes dangerous or self-destructive under this friend’s influence – for example, they are bullying other children together, getting into trouble with the police or their school marks and attendance have dropped significantly, you need to take action. Arrange to see their form tutor or class teacher and raise the issue.
There may be complex reasons for this behaviour, such as your child becoming a bully to avoid being targeted by the ‘bad’ friend. You need to understand the full story, and this is difficult if your own child is shutting you out. Getting the school involved will help you make progress.
However, if their behaviour is more like your own teenage rebellion, put it in perspective. Experimentation is part of growing up, and though it worries you now, it is likely to blow over. Stick to your usual ground rules, such as a set time to come home from a night out, and making sure they do chores and help out, but expect these rules to be tested, whatever friendship influences they have.
And the final word of reassurance? However you approach it, a troubling friendship may well peter out over time, anyway; a 2015 study by Florida Atlantic University found that only 1% of friendships formed by children aged 12-13 years old lasted five years, and 76% of friendships formed at this time lasted less than a year. Keep those statistics in your mind to feel more positive.
Written by guest contributor Polly Allen for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).