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Help Your Child Choose Healthy Friendships and Avoid Toxic Friends

By Marianne Haisten

A common concern for today’s parent is whether their child is hanging out with the right friends. Parents often worry about their child’s choice of peer group because they know that the wrong choices can lead to trouble for their son or daughter. But the world of a teenager is often difficult for parents to enter, meaning it can be very hard to get your teen to listen to the concerns you have. So what is a worried parent to do?

If you suspect your child may be headed down a road of trouble based on the friends they are spending time with, the first thing to recognize is that there is cause for a great deal of hope.

“While talking to your teen about their choice of friends may seem like an insurmountable challenge, it really isn’t,” says Hugh Kocab, director of Montcalm School for Girls, a therapeutic residential treatment program of Starr Commonwealth that helps troubled kids learn how to form positive peer relationships. “You really just have to know a few of the right tools to make them receptive to what you want to say,” Kocab says.

According to Dr. James Longhurst, a licensed psychologist and vice president of clinical and psychological services at Starr Commonwealth, the first step in talking to your kids about their friends may be the hardest. “You have to start by taking a serious look at your relationship with your child before you talk about your child’s relationship with his or her friends,” he says. “The quality of your relationship with your child is the number one predictor of the friendships they form in life.”

Step one in building that relationship can be summed up in two words: active listening. Longhurst says that a child-parent relationship can grow exponentially if a parent actively listens to the fears, worries, concerns and joys of their child. “You have to sit down with your child, with no distractions, and no agenda, and just listen to what they have to say,” says Longhurst. “If they don’t think you’re really listening to them, then they will try to find someone else they ‘think’ is listening. You just don’t want that.”

Unfortunately, as many parents are often aware, a child’s strong connection with their parents is not always received as positive by his or her peers. “There’s a lot of pressure out there,” says Longhurst. “Kids who don’t have strong connections with their parents tell your child that your rules, your curfews and your guidelines are all unfair.”

A parent faces significant challenges like this when trying to build upon their relationship with their child. But the best way to overcome such challenges is through modeling quality friendships. “Your child, no matter what his or her age, watches every move you make,” says Longhurst. “If they see you “use” friends or manipulate them or even compete unhealthily with your friends, they will repeat that behavior. And if you model what it is to be a true friend and you model compassion, commitment and selflessness, they have a higher likelihood of repeating that behavior as well.”

Another step in helping your child choose the right friends, or peer group, is to teach them about true friends and toxic friends.   “At Montcalm Schools, a lot of our kids find their way here because of the poor choices they’ve made and often, they made those poor choices when they were hanging around with so-called friends,” says Kocab. “We teach our students how to recognize the toxic friendships that contributed to the trouble they got into, and even more importantly, we teach them how to create true friendships.”

Fortunately, positive peer culture tools that are successful at Montcalm Schools and Starr Commonwealth in helping children create true friendships can also be used at home. “Help your child recognize pro-social values and they will have the ability to declare within their teen environment where they stand,” says Kocab. “Once this declaration through action is made, other peers with similar values will be attracted. These are true friends who support your child’s healthy choices and respect your authority as a parent.”

Read other articles and learn more about Marianne Haisten.

[Contact Marianne Haisten at haistenm@starr.org for permission to reprint this article.]

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