Every parent is haunted by the fear that their teenager will befriend the wrong sort of people. Peer pressure is very real and very dangerous. Indeed, pregnancy, eating disorders, petty crime, drug addiction, and many other things, can often be traced to the influence of toxic friends.
As with so many things in life, the more you understand the better. Growing up is hard. And it is important not to project your experience onto your teen. The middle-aged father who tells his 15-year-old son to “just ignore” the bullies is naive. A 15-year-old’s world is different to a 45-year-old’s. As an adult, one can resist peer pressure. If the father doesn’t socialize with work colleagues, they will accept it. People are less observant and intrusive in adult life. For a teenager, not socializing isn’t an option. You need to fit in.
Fear also plays its part. Teenage swagger often masks deep insecurity and fear. Your child may be frightened of these new people. Indeed, that may be the reason he befriended them in the first place. Unfortunately, once you join such a group it can be hard to leave. If parents kept this in mind, they might be more compassionate and understanding.
The young tend to be impressed by confidence and style. As time passes, we learn to see through such masks. We look for substance instead. But during the teenage years, appearance, confidence, popularity and “cool” are all that matter. To you, his cool new friend seems no more than a spotty, arrogant child with too much to say. To your son, however, he is a cross between David Bowie and Oscar Wilde! Again, try to see the world through your child’s eyes. He or she isn’t a jaded 40-something.
Your child is trying to establish a separate identity – that’s what being a teenager means. The silly clothes, awful music and absurd language are part of this. And that may explain the attraction of these new people. Maybe they seem different and unusual; through their friendship your child can assert himself and carve out a new identity.
Finally, keep in mind the confusion involved in growing up. A teenager is experiencing everything for the first time. They have no previous experience or wisdom to draw upon. One minute they are an innocent child, the next they are engulfed by hormones. Adults are unfair to the young, often dismissing their fears as “kid’s stuff” and assuring them that it’s nothing compared to the pressure of a job and mortgage re-payments. But to a 14-year-old, bullying, drug abuse and peer pressure are every bit as scary as your irate boss or looming tax bill.
If your child has become friends with someone you distrust, follow your instinct. Though people may tell you not to be a neurotic or snob, the dangers are real. In particular, do not underestimate jealousy and spite. Imagine a 14-year-old girl who attends her local high school. She lives in a detached house in the leafy suburbs, with loving and attentive parents. At school, however, she is desperate to fit in. To avoid being persecuted, she befriends the class bully, and within a few weeks is smoking, dyeing her hair and swearing. Her parents, who are tolerant and open-minded, put it down to teenage rebellion.
One day, she brings the new friend home for dinner. The girl has grown up in a very different environment (a scruffy apartment, an alcoholic mother, abusive stepfather, etc). She is also spiteful and jealous by nature. Throughout dinner she sits, sullen and watchful, as the girl’s parents ask about school and generally fuss her. Why, she thinks, should you have all the things I don’t? She feels humiliated by the contrast, and she resents the fuss they make of their daughter. The bully later encourages her to try an addictive drug, or go to bed with someone at a drunken party. When the girl hesitates, she mocks her as spoilt, as “little Miss Perfect;” when she finally gives in, the bully is delighted to imagine the expression on those parents’ faces.
Of course, dangerous friends are not always so calculating or so cruel. Some are just wild, thoughtless and reckless. The first and most obvious danger is drugs. Unfortunately, you never know how someone will react. Some people have addictive personalities, others do not. Your child’s friend may have experimented with various substances without any harm or cravings. He then introduces the drug to your child, however, who becomes hooked. Indeed, this is very common. Many people experiment with drugs in their teens and then go on to hold responsible jobs and raise a family. The drugs were just a phase, one easily left behind. Others struggle with addiction throughout their lives.
Another fear is the promiscuous friend. Teenagers often find sex confusing, even scary. Is it normal to have lots of one night stands? Should there be any boundaries? Parents frequently find it too embarrassing to discuss, and few teenagers want to discuss it with their parents anyway. Instead, they tend to listen to their friends. The wrong sort of friends may convince them of anything (that it is normal for a 14-year-old to sleep with older men, that you can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex, that you can’t catch an STD so long as you use a condom, and so on).
Eating disorders also tend to begin in adolescence. And these can sometimes be triggered by a group of friends. For example, a girl becomes obsessed with her weight. Her friend (your daughter), who is slightly chubbier, had never really thought about this before. Soon, however, she picks up her friend’s neurotic obsession. They begin to compete, and her friend makes little comments when she eats a potato chip from someone’s else’s bag, or when she has pizza in the school canteen. Soon, she is teaching your child how many calories everything has, and how many you can lose from specific forms of exercise.
And it isn’t just eating disorders. BDD, or “body dysmorphia,” can also be triggered by teenage friends. Body dysmorphia involves excessive worry about one’s appearance. Such people are convinced they are ugly and, in extreme cases, refuse to look in a mirror – or even leave the house. Indeed, some refuse to let their partner to see them naked. Never underestimate how sensitive a teenager can be. One silly remark can initiate a lifetime of struggle with anorexia and self-loathing.
More generally, there is the attitude certain people have to life: to study, work, responsibility, etc. Most parents just want their child to be safe and happy. But they also want them to approach life with a healthy attitude. That does not mean encouraging greed and ambition, of course, but no one wants their child to become a bored and jaded ‘stoner’ either: struggling to find anything that interests or excites him, sitting around the apartment all day smoking cannabis and playing video games, etc.
Finally, there is the lure of petty crime. A teen whose father and older brothers are criminals may have a very different attitude to crime, seeing it as harmless fun, even a career choice. Your son is then influenced by this casual attitude and begins to think of arrest, prison and a criminal record in the same way.
What to Do
No advice is definitive. You alone know your child. Some respond well to a firm hand, others do not. Some like to be treated as equals, some are too immature. You must judge your child for yourself. As a general rule, however, avoid patronizing them. Most teenagers hate this. Instead, speak to them as you would an intelligent but misguided friend. Dealing with teenagers means walking a tightrope. On the one hand, you must avoid patronizing them. On the other, you need to retain authority.
To begin with, avoid criticizing their friends. If your child is going through a rebellious teenage phase, they are likely to side with those friends against you. In any case, the average sullen 14-year-old will not smile and reply “thank you, you are quite right; I won’t see them anymore.” On the contrary, you are more likely to be met with demands to stay out of their life. Criticizing someone’s choice of friends is an insult. You are insinuating that they have no taste, even that they could do no better.
Don’t focus on their friends as people. In other words, don’t run them down. Focus instead on their behaviour. And when you do, speak in a loving, calm manner. The more you nag someone the less likely they are to pay attention; instead, your voice will sink to a background whine. So, for example, you could say “look, I’m sure Joe is fun, but he keeps getting into trouble, and he’s going to drag you down with him”.
Talking to your teenager as an intelligent friend does not mean treating them as an equal. You are still the boss. When people undergo officer training, for example, they are taught never to be too familiar with those under their command. If they are, every order will be questioned. Set rules and boundaries and enforce them. Some parents seem almost frightened to do this. But just as excessive discipline can be cruel, so can too little. Young people need laws and boundaries – crave them in fact. If their friends are exposing them to danger, it is your duty to set such rules.
Finally, remind them that they have a choice. It is important to be your own person. Indeed, stress how pathetic it is to follow the herd or crowd. At the moment these cool kids seem all important, but this is only a small part of your child’s life. Ten years from now they will have different friends and a different kind of life.
Don’t underestimate the impact a child’s friends can have on their life. These are the people they will turn to when dealing with sex, drugs, bullying, school work, and countless other matters. And there is almost no limit to the influence they can have, both good and bad.