You object for a lot of reasons to the friends with whom your children associate and to the relationships your children develop. Perhaps the issue first arises when you become a little more selective about who your children are allowed to stay overnight with, or who they are allowed to have stay overnight with them. Maybe you start by making more positive comments about certain associates and less positive comments about other friends. However it gets started, you subtly or not so subtly let your children know you find some children more acceptable than others, you approve of some relationships and not others, and you divide the world into those with whom it is alright to associate and those with whom it is less acceptable. Just as you do not want your children to associate with rebellious, delinquent, antisocial children, you also do not want them to associate exclusively with passive, socially conforming peers. You know healthy social development lies somewhere between these extremes. Also, your children may associate with only one or two other children. This is unhealthy, since a variety of friends and associates give a broader social experience with different people. A broader social experience expands their interests and their ability to deal with relationships and social situations.
Your children associate with people whom they perceive to be like themselves. When you disapprove of their friends, what you are actually saying is, “They are not like I perceive you to be or want you to be.” If your child associates with people very different than you want, the real problem is you do not understand your child very well. your perception of her is different than her perception of herself. Lets call this image disparity.
In addition to image disparity, it is quite possible you are misunderstanding the friends of your child. You think they have inappropriate values, or are involved in unacceptable activities. Maybe you have made these judgments on unsound grounds, for example, being from a poor or wealthy family, personal appearance, style of dress, personal habits, and so on. You may have made the judgment based on rumors or things you have misunderstood. Lets call this a problem of misperception.
Next, you may accurately understand that the other children are involved in activities unacceptable to you. your children may even agree, but feel their friends and associates also have some good qualities and are able to form good relationships within limits. your child relates to these people in a limited way, under certain circumstances. He sees no problem with this and is trying to tell you he can handle himself and is not going to get involved in unacceptable activities. Lets call this limited faith.
Finally, your child may be involved in a relationship you find quite acceptable. The problem you feel is the relationship excludes other social experiences or the boy friend or girl friend is becoming too involved. Lets call this a problem of exclusivity.
Think first about image problems. If you are having difficulty accepting your child’s friends and associates, say, “But they are not like you.” This lets you know if there is an image problem. Gently tell your child how you perceive him and his friends. Ask him to tell you how he sees himself and his friends. You can thus start to explore the image problem. If it is severe and continuing, professional counseling is in order. You and your child need to talk with someone who can help you better understand your child and can help your child better understand who he is and who he wants to be.
Misperception is a more likely problem. You and your child have about the same image of her. But you see her friends differently than she does. Do you really know her friends? Have you talked with them, invited them to your house or asked your daughter to invite them; have you been involved in situations where you can get to know your child’s friends? Get to know her friends. You can say, “You and I seem to think and look at your friends differently. This may be because you know them better than I do. What is the possibility of my getting to know them better? Are you open to having one or two of them over for the evening, inviting one of them to dinner, inviting three or four of them to go with us to a ball game?” This shows you respect her judgment and perceptions about her friends and want to have the opportunity to develop first-hand knowledge of them. Adolescents seldom reject this idea. In fact, they are usually eager to have their parents get to know the people they like. Just keep in mind your teenagers likely do not want to have you hanging around where they are or be seen hanging around with you in public places, especially if there friends are likely to be there without adult company. It may help to know teenagers usely start getting past this when they are sixteen or seventeen.
If, as you evaluate the problem with your children over their friends and conclude there is no real image problem and no significant misperception, consider if there is a lack of faith. Perhaps you do not have sufficient faith her willpower, self-control, social judgment and ability to deal with peer pressure will lead to acceptable and desirable behavior. She says, “You don’t trust me,” and she is right. Admit it. Then you are on honest ground with her. (She may be a little surprised to hear you acknowledge the truth.) Once you have acknowledged you do not trust her, you can say, “I see you as a reasonable, responsible, trustworthy person, but am not sure you have the emotional or social strength to deal with that kind of situation. Sometimes doing the wrong thing or getting involved in unacceptable activities are very tempting; sometimes the pressure is too hard to resist. Can we at least talk about it?” Having started on honest ground, having not become accusing or threatening, and having approached her in a reasonable way, the likelihood is she will discuss the situation with you. Once you talk with her about it, she can understand your feelings, can look more carefully at the social and emotional problems, and can be more aware of situations in which difficulties arise. In addition, there is a strong likelihood she will reconsider her friendships.
Finally, if the problem involves the issue of exclusivity, your course is considerably clearer. First, it usually does not help to demand your child terminate the relationship with the special friend. Occasionally this works and parents think they have used the right approach. More frequently, though, the demand meets with great resistance. Such defiance can cause the relationship to intensify and make it more difficult for your child to terminate the relationship. You might say to your adolescent, “I don’t think much of that relationship and really want to talk about it with you. I want you to consider the possibility of giving it up, but am only suggesting we talk about it to see what ideas we can come up with.” Beyond that, say yes but set conditions, like how often or where or what.
Occasionally a couple does “fall in love” at a young age and the relationship matures very nicely over time. Most often, though, it does not work this way. If you can, without anger or accusations, set limits on how often, when, where, and under what circumstances, and not demand the relationship stop, the relationship will probably just run its course.
By the age of twelve or so, your child is choosing many of his social involvements. You can compare your image of your child and his relationships with this image. In addition, you can try to avoid misperceptions of his friends, to work through any lack of faith in his judgment and his ability to deal with social situations. Finally, you can set limits on when, where, and how often particular relationships occur.