My teenager’s friends are a bad influence.

Parent Question:
My 14-year-old son has fallen in with a bad group of friends and we are worried. He found the transition to secondary school hard. He was isolated and unhappy in first year and Covid made this harder. It took him a long while to find a group of friends who accepted him.

Now in second year he is hanging around with a group of boys who are on the fringes in the school. They don’t seem to have high expectations of themselves and I fear that this is rubbing off on my son. For example, my son used to be academic and like his study; now he is showing little interest and questioning the point of it. He is a very good footballer, but he has lost interest in this as his new group of friends don’t play. Luckily, he still involved in the team but this is on a thread. The new friends just want to hang out on bikes after school.

If my husband or I try to talk to him about this it usually flares up into an argument. He says we are snobs and hypocrites if we say anything even remotely critical of his friends. He has also become much more argumentative and aggressive recently towards us and communication is poor.

At 14 years of age conflict between parents and teenagers is usually at its highest as teenagers push for independence challenge the expectations that parents set for them around school work and social values. Belonging and acceptance in the peer group becomes crucial and teenagers often feel their parents are out of touch with their world.

In responding as a parent, the key is be understanding and not angry or defensive. Be careful about being over-critical about his friends, which could drive a bigger wedge between you and push him further towards his peer group. Instead try and adopt a more understanding, thoughtful approach.

Try to understand his friends individually
Put aside your worries for a moment and try to understand what he gets from the friendships and connections with this new peer group.

Listen carefully when he talks about his friends. Ask open and interested questions about what they do together and what he likes about them.

Try to get a sense of each of the individual boys in the peer group – he may be closer and have more in common with some of them and some may actually be good friends and a positive influence in his life.

Get to know his friends
Consider different ways of getting to know his friends a bit better. You could suggest he invites some of them over to the house – arranging a pizza/movie party might be a simple way to do this. One to one or small meet-ups can work better and give you a sense of the other boys as well as helping him form better friendships.

Such meetings might also give you an opportunity to make contact with the other boys’ parents to give you a sense of other families.

Once you understand his peer network better you will be in a better position to know what role they have in his life.

Focus on judging issues not judging his friends
As you listen you may hear things that you don’t like. For example, he might say one of his friends doesn’t do study or is dropping out of sport. In these instances, don’t immediately jump to judge the boy – “He sounds like a bad influence, stay away from him!” Instead, be more compassionate – “Sounds like he is finding the study hard – lots of kids do” – and explore the issue with your son – “How do you feel about study?” or “What do you think is the best decision to make?

Keep your advice focused on the issue, rather than judging the friend – “I want you to do your best in study whatever your friends do” or “I think it is important you stay in the sports team”, or “Even if J does not attend the club you can still go yourself – you can make your own decision.”

Encourage other friendships and peer groups
If you remain concerned about this peer group, consider how you encourage your son’s contact with other friends and social groups where he can also belong and feel accepted. This might mean working hard at encouraging his continue involvement in the sports team.

Take time to understand what might be causing his lack of interest and make a plan to address this. For example, if lack of connection with this team-mates is the issue you could support this by arranging car-pooling to matches so he gets one-to-one time with other players or arranging social events connected to the sport that all the team could attend.

You can also support him to take up other social activities outside school such as joining scouts or a music group, depending on what interests him. One family I worked with arranged for their son to attend scouts with a cousin (as he was reluctant to attend alone) to help create a new social group for him.

You could also contact the year head in the school and discuss the peer group issue with them. They may be able do subtle things to help, like inviting your son to do new school-based activities with other boys or giving him some extra responsibilities in the school.

Improve your own communication with your son
With a young teenager, frequently you have to work hard to keep communication open and to remain connected. The more you do this the easier it will be to resolve conflict and to solve problems.

Look for moments in the day when you can have a good chat with your son and enjoy each other’s company. This can mean being around when they come in from school, taking time to have some meals together, using times driving together as opportunities to chat and developing some simple shared interests such as watching a weekly TV show together.

Take a long-term view
Peer groups and teenage friendships can change quickly as children grow up. Your son could move on from this peer group in a few months and/or join other activities and social groups that become more central in his life. Equally, some of the boys in the peer group could change and mature and become positive and good friends in your son’s life.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charityand an adjunct professor at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin. This parenting Q&A was originally published in the Irish Times in October 2021. John writes in the Irish Times Newspaper on Tuesdays. His website is