The following article originally ran on LDS Living in September 2014.
Parenting is no child’s play—especially when it comes to monitoring your child's friends. How do you know when to intervene and when to let kids just be kids?
Thankfully, you don’t have to handle your child’s friendships alone. Here are 10 parenting tips—five regarding children, five regarding teenagers—that can help your family in cases of “friendly fire.”
Kid Talk: Ages 6–12
1. Look Inward
Before you play the blame game, examine your feelings.
“If you’re uncomfortable with your child’s choice of friends, the first step is self-reflection to identify if there is truly cause for concern or if your discomfort is rooted primarily inside of you or your past experiences,” says Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a licensed psychotherapist. “So often, a parent’s own unresolved issues and insecurities cloud the perception of what’s going on. It’s important for parents to have an awareness of their own emotional vulnerabilities.”
2. Ask Questions
“If there’s a friendship concern you want to communicate to your child, start by asking questions about the friendship,” Hanks says. “Questions like, ‘What do you like most about Josh?’ ‘What’s the most difficult part of being friends with Jane?’ ‘What kinds of things do you do together?’ After you get a good feel for your child’s experience in the friendship, then you can express your concerns to your child.”
She adds, “Open-ended questions in a spirit of curiosity often work well. Something like, ‘I’ve noticed that when you and Kyle play together at our house, you seem to let him make most of the decisions. Why do you think that is?’”
3. Talk Parent to Parent
“Whether or not to discuss concerns with the friend’s parents really depends on how serious the situation is,” Hanks explains. “If it’s a matter of the children having difficulty taking turns in a game, help them work through that at your own home. If the friend speaks to you in a disrespectful way, you can redirect the child, specifically saying something like, ‘In my home, ask me for what you want with a please and in a calm voice.’
"If situations don’t resolve, then it’s probably best to discuss the situation with the child’s parents. Also, in situations where a friend is saying inappropriate words or there is any kind of sexual talk or acting out, the parents should be notified of the problem immediately.”
Hanks also counsels, “Be open to hearing what the friend’s parents think and how they feel. Don’t automatically assume your child has no part in the situation and that it’s all the other kid’s problem.”
4. Be Open About Other Faiths
When talking about religion, it’s important to remain open. “Don’t beat around the bush, but also avoid controlling tactics,” says Laura Padilla-Walker, associate professor at the School of Family Life at BYU and author of the book Prosocial Development.
“We want to encourage our children to be kind to people of varying beliefs, but we also want them to understand that being close friends with someone who actively discourages our beliefs and does not respect our right to follow them might be challenging and unwise.”
Hanks adds, “It’s important to not send the message that the friend or their family is ‘bad’ when they say or do things that differ from your family’s values and expectations. It’s important to recognize your perspective is only one perspective.”
5. Learn to Let Learn
“As parents, it is our job to teach and coach our children, not to rescue them from difficult situations,” Hanks says. “However, if you believe your child’s emotional or physical well-being is in danger, you need to step in and protect your child.”
Padilla-Walker agrees. “I would nearly always recommend helping the child deal with the situation themselves, unless it involves violence or aggression, either physical or verbal,” she says. “If the problem is getting out of hand, certainly intervening is appropriate.”
Teen Talk: Ages 13–19
1. Watch with Care
“Look for changes in your child’s behavior that are atypical,” says Padilla-Walker. “It’s pretty common for teens to act differently around friends than they do family, but is the behavior changing in a way that is concerning? Do they seem to have a strong desire to conform? Is your child compromising standards to keep a friend?”
“Watch for changes in mood and behavior, dropping grades, or extreme withdrawal from interaction with parents and family,” says Hanks, who is also the founder of Wasatch Family Therapy. “Another sign could be increased insecurity or excessive pleasing behavior.”
2. Pause the Panic
When it comes to teenagers, it’s easy to assume the worst—and panic accordingly.
“Don’t overreact and crackdown in a controlling manner,” Padilla-Walker says. “This will almost always backfire on you, especially with teenagers. Open conversations and loving concern are more effective.
"Remember, children are not as likely to blindly follow friends as we sometimes think. On small, personal issues, yes. But what children and teens have learned in the home will be a stronger influence if the relationship between parents and children is maintained. We want our children to come to value their beliefs on their own because they want to—not because we forced them to.”
3. Watch Your Talking Points
“Ask more questions than you offer answers,” Hanks says. “Talk with your teens—not at them. Own our concern as ‘your concern’—not as ‘the truth’ or the ‘only way’ or even the ‘right way.’ If you present your point of view as the only way, the teen will be less likely to listen.”
What’s more, open those lines of communication early and often. “Developing an emotionally close, securely attached, and mutually respectful relationship starts long before the teen years,” she says. “If a close relationship is already established, these difficult conversations are easier because they provide a safe context to discuss difficult topics.”
4. Make a Pact with Other Parents
So just when should you involve other parents?
“I’d say when there are issues relating to a teen’s well-being or safety, or if there is suspected illegal activity going on,” Hanks says. “For example, issues that should always be brought to the other parents’ attention are drug use, alcohol use, drinking and driving, sexual behavior, or health concerns such as eating disorders, depression, or suicide threats.”
5. Open Your Mind (and Heart)
“We want our children to be ‘in the world’ so they can have a positive influence on others, and sometimes this means being friends with those who aren’t of our faith. In fact, we should welcome that!” Padilla-Walker says. “Sometimes we unintentionally lead our children to be judgmental and ostracizing of others because we are so afraid they will be negatively influenced. Help your children be inclusive and be a force for good. Help them to be leaders and examples among their friends. Focus on the positive. Nurture the flowers—not the weeds.”
And above all else, when it comes to your child's’ friends, trust your instincts.
“Trust your gut feeling, our intuition, and spiritual promptings,” Hanks says. “Pray for guidance. Each child is so individual and will respond in different ways.” Do what works for your child and your family, trusting that the Lord will guide you, and knowing that in the end, all things will work together for your good.