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Peer influences. How parents can teach kids to manage negative influences from peers and avoid hanging with the wrong crowd.

A parent writes, "What advice do you have about negative influences? Our teenage son is drifting towards the wrong crowd. We've tried to talk to him about it, but he shuts down.We don't want to choose his friends, but feel the need to do something. Help!"

Negative Influences. Is Your Child Calling Them "Friends?"

Friendships occupy positions of extreme importance in the lives of adolescents. Often times, it can seem as if they are more important than parents! Friends find things out before we do, they tend to be more easily forgiven (whether or not they deserve to be), and friends can have great influence over many areas of a teen's emerging identity. Their choice of music, movies, clothes, boyfriends or girlfriends, classes, jobs, and so on, can all be "peer reviewed" for acceptability. In some teens, it doesn't stop here. Personal standards of behavior, school performance, morals and values, can also fall prey to peer influence. This makes it especially important for teens to make good friendship choices.

Teens become more susceptible to negative influences for many reasons. Perhaps they have not comfortably established themselves within their peer group, are not prepared for the challenges they will confront, or have attached themselves in an unhealthy way to a peer whom they greatly admire, or even idealize. These scenarios can set the stage for a host of problems, from disrespect for authority to delinquent activities.

Parenting Advice to Help Your Child Manage Negative Peer Influences

Here are some coaching tips to keep in mind when approaching your teen about this issue:

Positive relationships with adults and peers are one of the best insulators against negative influences. Adults does not only apply to parents, but to coaches, teachers, academic advisors, etc. Sometimes these other adults may actually hold more sway over your teen's susceptibility to negative influences because they may know more than you do about what is really going on. They can also speak to your teen from a different vantage point and their words may not be seen as just another lecture from Mom or Dad.

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Approach the topic of negative influences with open ended, nonjudgmental statements rather than closed minded questions and pronouncements. Remember that most of these negative influences are better known as friends by your teen. Teens tend to be rather sensitive about parents passing judgment about who they hang out with. Try not to step into the role of interrogator who makes them feel like you are grilling them for information or trying to scare them out of a friendship. Instead of the question, "Do you think his parents know that he does so and so?" try, "When he does that it must make you wonder what to do." It's often better to be indirect.

Be careful about making arbitrary rules about negative influences; you might drive your teen into a more susceptible position. It is important to respect the truism that by keeping your child away from something too strictly, you may in the long run increase their attraction to it. Try to gather as much information about the "wrong crowd," including your teen's thoughts and feelings and those of other kids and adults. When the time is right, share these ideas with your teen, being careful to match your tone to their feelings, and ensure that your comments are more fact based and less opinion. Don't let this issue place undue strain upon your relationship.

When the door to difficult discussions opens, be prepared with what you're going to say. One way to broach the subject is by suggesting that they will be meeting up with all kinds of situations and may kinds of kids. If they aren't willing to share some of these challenges with you, they won't help you understand just how prepared they are to deal with the tough situations in life. And if you don't have a sense of how equipped they are to deal with tough challenges, how are you going to have the peace of mind to extend their privileges? This places the onus of talking on them, and allows you to refer back to this discussion if you need to in the future.

About Dr. Steven Richfield: Known as "The Parent Coach," Dr. Richfield is a child psychologist, parent/teacher trainer, author of "The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today's Society" and creator of the Parent Coaching Cards.

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