A mom wrote me the other day with this dilemma. She has a 14 year old daughter whose friendship with a girl a year older had caused her daughter a great deal of trauma last year. They succeeded in helping her separate from this girl. There was a big team effort from the school, the daughter's therapist and a lot of love and caring from this mom and dad. Parents, school and therapist saw a huge change in this 14 year old. She began to have a happier disposition, a reconnection with old friends, and a lot less anxiety and misery. A win win.
Mom thought this friendship was a done deal. This school year has been a good one, with little drama now that this friend was out of the picture, not only emotionally, but physically as well, having moved on to an alternative high school for teens with attitude and behavioral issues. Everybody breathing a sigh of relief. And then... A request from her daughter last weekend to go to a semi-formal dance a few towns away with a friend mom loves, and another girl...the girl from last year that had caused her daughter so much angst. Mom was shocked. She thought this girl was gone and forgotten. But here she is again. Mom had been keeping up with this girl by reading her daughter's facebook, and had been reading about all her drug and alcohol fueled partying escapades which she freely described to all on facebook.
There was a simple answer to this request from her daughter..NO. Mom understood her daughter's disappointment, understood she wouldn't be happy with her answer, but felt firm in that decision. The daughter, not so understanding. She pulled out the "you're the worst mother ever" line. A sure fire guilt producer. And this mom wrote me wondering whether she was the worst mom ever. I am here to say NO.
Mom wrote: "She seems to gravitate to these kids because they “accept” her. She does not have a huge group of friends, and is trying to make new ones, but is having trouble. These troubled kids all accept her, because misery loves company. Help!!!!!
The bottom line is you can not control your teens friendships. When your teen hangs with kids you don't like, and feel don't bring anything positive to the table, you can often feel helpless in your ability to intervene. But, and this is an important but, you can have influence, which is different than control. These parents, school personnel and therapist definitely had influence in helping this 14 year old see that this friend was a downer, and the daughter was able to separate from her.
This is hard work for a young teen. There is nothing more flattering to someone to have someone show interest in you, especially the "bad girl". These girls or boys are usually charismatic, fun, risk-taking personalities, who often prey on more passive, insecure types. They can seem especially attractive to those kids because they do all the "friendship work" for them. Making the plans, and orchestrating their social life with all the kinds of things that feel so hard for them. This mom really "gets" her daughter's motivation, and it must feel so exhausting to have to go through this all again.
Certainly, saying no to situations that you know will be unsafe is a number one priority, like the dance. So maybe you will get the "worst mom/dad award that weekend. so be it. But the bigger job is to continue to help your teen to navigate this relationship and help her to be successful in forming new ones. Some "I get It" help. You can say to your teen: " I get how X can be a fun friend. Tell me what you like about them? And secondly, So what do you think worries me about X?" lecturing your teen about all the ills of this "bad seed" will only make them want to defend this kid. What you want to do is get them to articulate what's attractive about this kid, and to articulate what they think worries you about that. When it comes out of their mouths than they are an active participant in the discussion. They hear the words they are saying, and can take ownership. When you just lecture and talk at them, they shut down, and may be missing important information.
Helping kids find positive relationships, especially for those kids who lack confidence is really the bigger task. Sometimes it takes a little sleuthing. If you know your teen has an interest in something but is shy about getting involved you can go behind the scenes. For example, say your kid is a good artist and getting involved with scenic design for the spring musical or poster design for the prom would be a boost to their ego. So you might go to the guidance counselor or art teacher or drama teacher, and see if they might personally approach your teen to help, saying they heard they were a talented artist and could really use their help. This gives your teen access to whole new group of kids. Or perhaps your kid isn't into sports or theater or anything at school, and helping them to find a job or internship where there are other kids would help. The work here for kids who have a hard time in the friendship department is to help them get access to a wider network. Maybe that's a job, or volunteer work, some school activity. But what you need to know is that this kind of teen will not be the one to go find these opportunities. So saying things like" Why don't you sign up for....fill in the blank will fall on deaf ears. Whether its finding new friends, or signing up for activities, they just don't have the confidence. The work is helping them develop the confidence. So do a little behind the scene work. This is a little bit like the "secret life of a parent" here. You want your teen to feel like he is being asked not that his mommy or daddy is doing it for him.
Navigating friendship comes very easily to some and not so easily to others. Recognizing and understanding that this might be your teen's challenge is important, helping them to feel confident and successful is your goal.