When your teen's new best friend is a bad influence

Three girls gossiping.

At a glance

  • For young people aged between 12 and 17, it's typical for friends to rate higher than family.
  • Imposing bans on unwanted friendships is unlikely to help and may distance your child, whereas engaging with ‘bad' friends may turn things around.
  • Low self-esteem can steer adolescents towards more dangerous friendships.
  • Teenagers want to belong to a tribe and it's important to provide an alternative tribe if they're being asked to leave one behind.

It can create all kinds of angst for parents when they think their teenager's new best friend is a bad influence. But what can be done? How do you discourage these friendships without inadvertently driving away your child in the process?

Liz, mother of Matilda, 16, has experienced both sides of the story.

The thing about self-esteem is that the parent needs to genuinely like the child and let the child know this on a regular basis. Heather Irvine-Rundle Clinical psychologist

"I try to engage with those friends I don't like, but it's very hard receiving monosyllabic answers," she says.

"On the other hand, Matilda herself has been banned altogether from other girlfriends' houses by their parents. It's hard to stomach, but I can understand why."

Keeping enemies close

Clinical psychologist Heather Irvine-Rundle, who works in family counselling on the Central Coast, says banning friendships is a dangerous approach; however seeking to engage with the new friend is a good step.

"These supposed ‘bad' friends may listen to you – they might even like you – and that way you may be able to guide your child's behaviour through guiding the friend's behaviour. I've seen many cases where it has turned things around," Heather says.

And if things don't work out, your teenager is likely to appreciate that you have been reasonable rather than dismissive.

But even before trying to befriend the friend, it's important to look at your own family to try to determine why you are reacting against the friendship so much, and to also ensure there aren't any family problems that may be driving your teenager into such a friendship.

"One of the mistakes so many parents make is to put all of the blame for their child's inappropriate behaviour/hairstyle/tattoos/piercings on the child's friends," says Heather.

"Instead of looking for someone to blame outside the family, perhaps it's time to take a step back and look at what issues are going on within the family and hence what the family can address."

Your teenager's self-esteem

One thing that can be effectively addressed at home is a self-esteem problem. Such problems can compel kids to choose more dangerous friendships, and blaming a child for their choice of friends will only do further harm.

"The thing about self-esteem is that the parent needs to genuinely like their child and let the child know this on a regular basis," Heather says.

"When children become teenagers there can be things that parents start to dislike about them in terms of some of their behaviours. Parents need to show regularly that while they may not like the behaviour, they positively adore the child – it's so hard otherwise for the child to like themselves."

Ensuring that for every negative comment, there are two positive comments also supports a child's self-image and esteem, Heather says.

"Parents may not like their child's piercing, or how they dress, but there has to be more positive feedback than negative. When teenagers only receive negative feedback they tend to rely on their peer group for the positive feedback – it's a natural instinct for emotional survival."

Spending some time doing something that you and your teenager enjoy – a football game, a coffee together – also validates a child's esteem, Heather says.

"You're showing you are truly delighted in them as a person."

Teenagers and tribes

The adolescent world is all about friendships. A teenager is unlikely to leave what Heather calls a ‘tribe' before they find another, and that's where parents can provide help.

"The whole tribal instinct is huge for adolescents and it doesn't come any stronger than during those years between 12 to 17. You have to provide them with an alternative way of making a new tribe. It may be that they're in a school without much capacity for that but it helps if they're involved in a sporting club, a job, a church group or youth group."

Liz says Matilda's tribe now varies and, while the family is still trying to negotiate the minefield that is adolescence, she's reassured Matilda feels comfortable to bring her friends of all shapes and sizes into the house.

"I couldn't manage her friendships even if I tried, but I really enjoy having them here, even if it's just for a big breakfast. It's a good connection."

How to handle bad friends

  • Keep the emotional bank balance in credit with more positives than criticisms about your teenager's friends.
  • Work out if there are any problems at home that could be fixed to draw your teenager back to the nest.
  • Poor self-esteem sometimes leads to teenagers choosing friends who may be a bad influence. Try not to further flatten your teenager's self-esteem by suggesting that they can't even choose their own friends.
  • Keep in mind that during adolescence, your son's or daughter's life is likely to be all about friendships ahead of family. Take time to help steer them in the direction of a new friendship group if you don't like the one they're in already, by ensuring there are opportunities for them to mix in groups apart from those at school.
  • If possible, try to engage with the undesirable friend or friends. In this way you can potentially influence the activities of the friend as well. 

(Source: Heather Irvine-Rundle/NSW Department of Education and Communities)


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