Countering Bad Influences

“My son was always a strong student and now he’s bringing home Ds,” says a frustrated mom of a seventh-grade student.

“I’ve noticed a change in my daughter’s behavior, and it really worries me,” says another concerned mom. “She lied to me and has been mean to her younger brother.”

When entering middle school, children often meet a new group of kids. They also tend to spend more time with their peers and less time with their parents — looking to those kids for opinions, reinforcement and acceptance. Although this is a normal part of adolescent development, some of your child’s friends not only may be less than ideal, they also may be a negative and destructive influence.

What should you do? In most cases, you can’t change the behavior of the friends themselves, and being overly critical or punitive might cause your child to gravitate toward these peers even more.

The key is to stay connected to your child during the middle school years. Communication and knowing your child’s friends are crucial components to proactive parenting.

Be a Good Listener
Believe it or not, parents (and home life) remain the biggest influence in children’s lives — even during adolescence. And, in many cases, the kids who make poor choices and seek acceptance through negative influences are those who feel misunderstood and rejected at home. This has to do with the child’s perception and not necessarily the reality.

Try to connect with your child while providing guidance, love and support. Listen and really try to understand your child’s feelings and thoughts.

Be aware of times when your preteen may be looking for your undivided attention. If your child asks you to take her shopping for new clothes, take this opportunity to connect with her. Initiate outings or even quiet moments at home when you can really talk with your preteen. This will provide a relaxed time when you can learn about your child’s peers … and make your values known, as well.

“Identify positive qualities about your child’s friends, and find out what your child likes about them,” says Dr. Faith Grobman, a licensed psychologist. Share your concerns with your child about a friend, but do so in a nonjudgmental way. Grobman suggests asking your child what he or she likes about the friend, and taking time to listen and validate your child’s feelings. Follow up by asking if there is anything that bothers him or her about the friend.

Ask open-ended questions and avoid being over critical. “Rather than put down or criticize a friend directly, talk about a situation where your child was treated poorly,” says Grobman. Let your child know it hurts you to see him or her upset or getting into trouble. Let it be your child’s realization that such a friend is not a true friend.

Parents need to implement certain rules and limits during this period of growth and development. “Remember to focus on the value, rule or regulation you want followed,” says Grobman. Enforce curfews and be consistent in issuing a consequence if your child doesn’t follow your rules and expectations.

Welcome Friends into Your Home
“Before you react, try to get to know your child’s friends,” says Grobman. Invite these friends to your home or on an outing with your supervision. And get to know friends’ parents to see if they are in agreement with you on big issues.

If your child only sees a particular friend who is a negative influence at school, consider speaking to a teacher or school counselor for an objective perspective. Even though school is a structured environment, middle school students who are extremely influenced by their peers can get into trouble.

If your child is expressing dissatisfaction with a peer, or you are bothered by a peer’s influence on your child, encourage him or her to meet new friends. Seek after-school activities, hobbies, sports or religious groups that may introduce your preteen to a variety of peers.

If you suspect your child will remain in a problematic situation, Grobman suggests helping your child deal with the situation by role-playing. Practicing effective and assertive ways of communicating feelings will give your child the confidence needed in potentially harmful peer situations. Make sure to impress on your preteen that you don’t want him or her to smoke, drink alcohol, use drugs or have sex. Be specific and explain how doing these things can spoil your child’s happiness, success and goals.

Also, let your child know he or she can come to you with any problems, and you will be available to listen and rescue your child from a party or other threatening situation. Finally, encourage your child to identify peers who will help him or her to achieve success.