My teenager’s friends are a bad influence

Choice, Teenager, Footpath.QUESTION
My 16-year-old daughter has fallen in with a group of friends who I think are a bad influence on her. She used to be a very positive girl and motivated in school and now she has an attitude, staying out late and she seems to only want to spend time with these other teenagers.

They don’t go to the same school as her and some of them seem to be dropping out of school. None of them seems to be interested in study and my daughter is now dragging her feet with study. She used to have other friends last year, particularly two girls who were in school with her. I thought they were lovely girls from good families but she seems to have drifted apart from them.

When I tackle her about her choice of friend, she accused me of being a snob and judgemental. She tells me to back off and that I can’t tell her who to be friends with. I don’t know what to do. I am very worried about her and don’t want her to miss out on education and throw her life away.

When your children choose friendships and peer groups that you don’t approve of, it can be a challenge to know how to respond as parent. It is particularly hard when they become older teenagers when you no longer “manage” their lives and when they have a legitimate right to make their own choices around friendships.

However, while you want to give them appropriate freedom, you also have the responsibility to ensure that they are protected and safe. As a result the peer group dilemma you describe requires a delicate, thoughtful approach. If you take a hard line and insist she does not see her friends, this approach can backfire and she might see the friends without your permission and thus put herself at a greater risk. In addition, an “absolute” approach on your part might increase her rebellion against your values and put a greater strain on your relationship.

Friends, peer groups and teenagers

Before thinking how to respond it is worth taking time to understand what these friendships might mean to your daughter. Belonging to a group and making friends are two of the most important concerns for teenagers of your daughter’s age. They are trying to work out their own identity, where they belong and what things are important to them. In addition, teenagers are on the path to separating from their parents and learning to make their own decisions.

Part of this process brings them into conflict with their parents as they frequently criticise their parents’ values and priorities as they try to work out their own. They may challenge the value of education or become idealistic about “fairness” or other values – frequently, they can argue their case well and make you question your own values. In dealing with your daughter’s challenges, the first step is not to take her behaviour personally and instead to listen carefully and continue to negotiate respectfully with her.

Negotiating rules with teenagers
Through the teenage years it is important to reduce the number of rules you have with your teenager and instead negotiate more with them about what is acceptable and how they should behave. However, it is also crucial that you keep in mind what are your non-negotiable rules and the areas where you have a responsibility to assert yourself firmly. For example, you cannot decide for your daughter who her friends are but it is your responsibility to insist on rules about safety (eg, knowing where your daughter is) and education (eg, not going out on school nights).

If your daughter resists your influence in these areas, you can argue with her that “I’m only asking for this for your benefit” or “I would not be a good mother, if I did not encourage you to do your best in school”, etc. By focusing on these core areas, where you still have a responsibility as parent, can be the best way to influence your daughter.

Empower your teen to think out things for herself

By shifting to a respectful negotiation with your daughter you can help her think through issues for herself and make her own mind up. When contentious issues arise, always try to express your views respectfully while being careful to listen to her point of view. For example, If your daughter accuses you of being a “snob”, you might say “I’m just worried some of the girls don’t see the value of education and this might rub off on you” and then ask her for her views – “What do you think? What is important for you in these friendships?”

By listening carefully you might get to some “win-win” solutions. You might accept some of her friendships and get to know some of her friends and she might set some goals for herself in education. Also, sometimes once the conflict is taken out of the situation, your daughter might move on from this group of friends of her own accord.

Work on your relationship with your daughter
Finally, don’t let the conflict become central or derail your relationship with your daughter. Though teenagers are separating from parents, they still desperately need to stay connected in some way with their parents and this is crucial to their wellbeing and security. Use whatever opportunities you have to build bridges and spend enjoyable time with her.

Notice the times in the day when you get on best with her (such as meals, coming in from school or watching a favourite TV programme together) and keep these time sacrosanct. Look to increase other enjoyable times with her in the day, whether this is doing an activity or going for walk with her (if she is agreeable) or simply responding to her request for a lift somewhere as it gives you a chance to chat in the car.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, October 2013. John writes in the Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.