So your kid has made a bunch of new “friends” in middle school. Maybe they just started high school and they are hanging out with a new group. A few of them are raising some red flags for you. Poor grades. Detention. Some of your child’s stories make you cringe. Suddenly you find yourself pointing out all of this kid’s problems and ill decisions to your child. And your child is defending them!! The problem arises when the more you criticize, the more interested your child becomes in this friend.
There’s a better way to talk to your child about their friends; not going down the “wrong” path; and being a leader, not a follower.
Listen Without Interrupting
No matter what the circumstance is always start here. Perhaps they are telling you a story and with each twist and turn you want to jump in to let them know what’s what! Wait, sometimes the juicy information is at the end and you won’t get the real deal if you stop them short. They may be testing you with a bit of the story to see if you can handle the whole thing. Maybe they’ve gotten in trouble and are trying to explain to you what happened. This is where it gets really hard because you blood may be boiling or your anxiety exploding. Relax the muscles in your face, let your lips gently rest together, and listen. What you are listening for is their thinking pattern. If you want to be able to get in their head, you have to understand how they think about a situation.
Genuinely curious. You may think you have the answers. Regardless, you want your child to come up with the answers. Your curiosity will be communicated by your tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. Keep it upbeat and casual like your on a scavenger hunt, whether it’s a conversation about trouble from school or the deets on track practice.
Be careful with “why” questions because they can seem accusatory. Ask…
What do you think led her to do that?
How do you think that decision came about?
What do you think was going through your mind when you decided to go along with that?
You want to get them thinking about the reasons behind their behavior and their friend’s behaviors. Other good questions…
What other decisions could your friend have made in that situation?
What do you think would have happened if they fought back?
Remember you want to get them thinking bigger than the impulsive behavior of their friends.
Have Them Evaluate Their Friend’s Decisions
Get to know who their friends are. Who they really are. Then reflect the various attributes of their friends and ask them to tell you more. Your child knows who gets good grades, who gets into fights, who curses, who is kind, who sticks up for others and so on. By balancing out the different friends’ attributes, it makes you seem more objective. If you’ve been listening and asking curious questions you’ll have lots of information (in your child’s words) to fuel the conversation further. For example, you might say, “So Tony grades are awful. Sounds like you think that’s because he doesn’t study. But he’s a really kind person and always invites people to sit with him at lunch.” Now you can ask questions like, “what do you think about how he invites people to lunch?” AND “what’s your take on why he just won’t study?” Now you can begin to get insights on what you child REALLY thinks of him.
Stay objective and let them criticize and evaluate their friend’s behavior. What’s better than letting them do the hard work for you. Plus, it exercises their critical thinking skills. You can even ask them to quantify their friend’s attribute. “So is Tony average, better than average or below average with his school work?” Seem truly curious. Balance it out with, “Is Tony more kind, less kind or about average compared to the other kids in your school?”
Review Their Values
This is where things can get really meaty. Talk to you kids about what’s important to them. Honesty, good grades, humor, friends who listen, staying out of fights, being the best, etc. The list goes on. Here is where you can help them understand what is important to them, what your family values are, and how they can keep those central in their mind. Let’s say your child values honesty, loyalty, kindness and good grades. You can start helping them see which friends will help them be their best self and which they have to be careful not to follow. Take Tony. Tony is a good model of kindness BUT when it comes to following Tony’s lead regarding studying that would be a poor choice. You can even follow it up with, “Would any of your friends be a good support in the study department or do you have to be the leader?” This can open up a conversation about the importance of surrounding yourself with people who will help you to strive to reach goals in line with your values.
Remember tweens and teens are very sensitive to criticism. Criticizing their friends, can feel like a personal criticism. Spending your time listening, being curious about their world, and helping them to develop their own opinions and values, will strengthen their ability to make good choices in critical moments.
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