Lisa Bahar, MA, LMFT, LPCC | Article

Your Preteen and the Wrong Crowd

Your Preteen and the Wrong Crowd
What to do when your kid starts making questionable friends


Changing Rules
Since preschool you've had a tight grip on your child's social life. You were the one making the playdates and setting up sleepovers. But now that your kid's hit middle school, the rules to the friendship game have changed. Your kid is meeting new people and growing more independent. Suddenly, you don't know the kids your son or daughter is hanging out with. And sometimes, what you do know of them worries you. What should you do when you see your child getting involved with a group of pals you think may be a bad influence? Here, experts share their advice.

Don't Rush to Conclusions
Maybe this new group isn't the same one you've grown attached to, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're bad kids. "Parents need to look within themselves and ask, 'What is the definition of the wrong crowd?'" says Richard Horowitz, author of Family Centered Parenting. "What is triggering the feelings you're having? Is it the way the kids speak or dress? Could it involve some sort of prejudice you're not even aware of or don't want to acknowledge? It might be that you're reacting emotionally without any real basis to be concerned."

Get to Know the Kids
Invite the new gang over so you can get to know them, recommends adolescent expert Carla Stokes. This is a good way to monitor the crowd behavior. Plus, you get to know that at least while the kids are in your care, you won't have much to worry about. It's also a good idea to become familiar with their parents, even though you might not share their values or parenting philosophy.

Avoid Criticisms
Don't express your displeasure with the crowd or cut down the pals, warns Horowitz. "If you do, you will create the 'forbidden fruit' phenomenon and drive your child even closer to them," she says. Preteens are struggling to break away from you, so the harder you push them away from something, the harder they'll cling to it.

Back Away From Ultimatums
For the same reason, it will also probably backfire if you forbid your child to hang out with the crowd, says Stokes. Besides, you can't possibly have control over your child's every move, and you shouldn't: If you set an ultimatum, you're only encouraging him to sneak around and lie about his whereabouts.

Set Limits
On the other hand, you should set some boundaries for your tween to give yourself peace of mind and protect her safety. Horowitz recommends sitting with your child and coming up with some rules you can both live with. For example, she can hang out with the new friends after school a few times a week if they're at a school event or a friend's home where the parents are present. "The more a kid is involved in making the rules, the more she'll follow them."

Encourage family time
This accomplishes many things, says Lisa Bahar, marriage and family psychotherapist. It lets your preteen know you care about him and want to stay engaged with him, even if he's growing up and making choices you don't always approve of. It also exposes him to your family values and takes away time spent with the group. And, though he would never admit it, a family activity like dinner at grandma's house may actually "serve as an excuse not to go along with the crowd on an activity that makes him uncomfortable," she says.

Steer Toward Other Friends
This may occur naturally if you've noticed your child's stopped doing the activities he used to enjoy, says Horowitz. For example, maybe your son used to spend his free time playing basketball, but now has given it up. You might ask him, "I wonder what you could do about this." Your son then may come up with the idea of calling his old basketball buddies ... and presto! He's hanging out with someone else.

Get Her Questioning Friendship Choices
If, let's say, your daughter's started using bad language, Horowitz recommends asking, "Your language wasn't like this before. What's changed?" She may answer, "This is how my friends talk." This is your cue to say, "Is this what you are looking for in a friend?" says Horowitz. These types of conversations may eventually motivate your child to look for other friends and then, at the very least, will get her rethinking her friendship choices.

Stay Calm
Middle schoolers are continually exploring who they are, and "trying on" different friends is part of that process, explains Stokes. As a result, the pals of today may quickly turn into those of yesterday, as your child discovers they don't share his interests or values. Hopefully, the next crowd he picks will.