Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
In "Brutally Honest" video series, Kelly Wallace takes on provocative parenting questions
First step for parents is figuring out why they don't like a child's friend, says a psychologist
Author says forbidding a friendship could backfire on parents
Teens with friends who drink and do drugs are more likely to do the same, according to report
If it hasn’t happened already, it probably will at some point: the moment you don’t like one of your child’s friends. What do you do?
I remember when I was growing up and my mom didn’t love me spending time with one of the girls in our neighborhood. She didn’t forbid me from being with her but didn’t encourage our get-togethers, either.
Eventually, I realized this friend wasn’t the right fit for me for a host of reasons, and the relationship fizzled. Years later, I wondered: How did my mom know?
Clinical psychologist Kirsten Cullen Sharma, co-director of the early childhood clinical service at the NYU Langone Medical Center’s Child Study Center, says the first thing parents need to ask themselves is why they don’t like one of their children’s friends.
“Is it because they don’t like that person’s mom? Is it because that kid gets really good grades and it’s easy for them and that person is a little narcissistic? Or is it something that is really serious that you’re worried your child would model an unhealthy behavior?” asked Cullen Sharma, who is also a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine.
“So I think parents need to understand why they have these feelings and where they’re coming from.”
Sometimes, it’s not so easy to figure out.
When Rachel Matos’ now-15-year-old son was in elementary school, he became friends with a boy who shared his interests in video games and sports. However, the friend was “a lot ‘older’ for his age, used a lot of profanity and had quite a reputation for saying hurtful things to peers,” said Matos, the photographer and writer behind the lifestyle blog The Art Muse.
It was hard to be neutral, she said. She didn’t want to judge too much and demand an end to the friendship, because that might have caused her son to lie about contact with his friend.
Instead, Matos invited her son’s friend to her home more to get to know him better and had several conversations with his parents, which helped a lot and made her see there was more to this friend than she initially realized.
“Turns out, this friend has actually grown into a very nice teenager, and they are still friends,” said Matos, who is also a freelance writer in Pasadena, California, and an account executive for Latina Bloggers Connect, where she connects bloggers with brands.
“It’s so hard to gauge these things,” she said, because kids change so much over time.
Laura Beyer, a mom of two grown daughters, took a similar approach any time she didn’t care for one of her girls’ friends. “I would figure out why and then befriend them,” said Beyer, of West Allis, Wisconsin.
“The minute you get these kids to respect you, the less likely they are to disrespect you and the more likely they are to show you reasons why they are unlikeable.”
Cullen Sharma, the psychologist, said that if a parent has a “feeling” every time their child spends time with another child they don’t like, they should probably do something about the relationship.
“If it’s something a parent is highly distressed about and they just believe and know that in their heart that this is not right … then I think it’s absolutely appropriate for parents to set limits on hanging out with kids who are ‘bad influences’ on their kids.”
The warning signs of a damaging and dangerous friendship could include gossiping and bullying, use of alcohol and drugs, poor grades, cutting school and self-harm, she added.
Forbidding a friendship could backfire, but talking to your child during a calm moment, not in the middle of a power struggle, can help the child open up about the friendship and what he or she gets from that connection, experts say.
Parenting advocate Sue Scheff, author of the book “Wit’s End: Advice and Resources for Saving Your Out-of-Control Teen,” encourages parents to ask questions such as “what do they have in common with their friend and what do they like to do together?”
“I always tell parents it is best to have the conversations before confrontations take place,” said Scheff. “Staying calm, showing a genuine interest in their friends, even if you don’t care for them, will show your child you are respecting him (or) her.”
She added, “Gradually, you have to point out that friends don’t bring other friends down, especially if your child is slipping in their grades, getting in trouble, etc.”
As parents, we know the stakes can be high when our child befriends someone whom we believe could be a danger. Recent surveys quantify how damaging those friendships can be.
Teens with friends who do drugs and drink alcohol are more likely to do the same, according to a 2011 survey sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health.
A survey by ParentFurther.com found that only 10% of teens said they had not been influenced by peer pressure and 46% of teens said they teased somebody because their friends were teasing that person.
Scheff, who works with parents of teens who are engaging in high risk behaviors, said there is another side to this issue: Sometimes your own child is the problem, and that is not so easy to accept.
“If your child is hanging with a less than desirable crowd, your child might be part of things you don’t want to face either but need to,” said Scheff. “It is so frustrating when parents say, ‘Not my child. It’s his friends.’ “