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16 year-old son is hangin' with the wrong crowd...

Mark,

Just joined today. Your program is very perceptive. Unfortunately, my wife and I see ourselves in these descriptions of over indulgence. Current problem is with our 16 year old son hanging with the wrong crowd. Suggestions on how to break him out? Thanks for any help.

B.

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Hi B.,

Everyone needs to belong — to feel connected with others and be with others who share attitudes, interests, and circumstances that resemble their own. People choose friends who accept and like them and see them in a favorable light.

Teenagers want to be with people their own age — their peers. During adolescence, teenagers spend more time with their peers and without parental supervision. With peers, teenagers can be both connected and independent, as they break away from their moms and dads' images of them and develop identities of their own.

While many families help teenagers in feeling proud and confident of their unique traits, backgrounds, and abilities, peers are often more accepting of the feelings, thoughts, and actions associated with the teen's search for self-identity.

The influence of peers — whether positive or negative — is of critical importance in your son's life. Whether you like it or not, the opinions of your son's peers often carry more weight than yours.

The ability to develop healthy friendships and peer relationships depends on a teen's self-identity, self-esteem, and self-reliance.

At its best, peer pressure can mobilize your son's energy, motivate for success, and encourage your son to conform to healthy behavior. Peers can and do act as positive role models. Peers can and do demonstrate appropriate social behaviors. Peers often listen to, accept, and understand the frustrations, challenges, and concerns associated with being a teenager.

The need for acceptance, approval, and belonging is vital during the teen years. Teenagers who feel isolated or rejected by their peers — or in their family — are more likely to engage in risky behaviors in order to fit in with a group. In such situations, peer pressure can impair good judgment and fuel risk-taking behavior, drawing a teen away from the family and positive influences and luring into dangerous activities.

For example, teenagers with ADHD, learning differences or disabilities are often rejected due to their age-inappropriate behavior, and thus are more likely to associate with other rejected and/or delinquent peers. Some experts believe that teenage girls frequently enter into sexual relationships when what they are seeking is acceptance, approval, and love.

A powerful negative peer influence can motivate a teen to make choices and engage in behavior that his or her values might otherwise reject. Some teenagers will risk being grounded, losing their moms and dads' trust, or even facing jail time, just to try and fit in or feel like they have a group of friends they can identify with and who accept them. Sometimes, teenagers will change the way they dress, their friends, give up their values or create new ones, depending on the people they hang around with.

Some teenagers harbor secret lives governed by the influence of their peers. Some — including those who appear to be well-behaved, high-achieving teenagers when they are with adults — engage in negative, even dangerous behavior when with their peers.

Once influenced, teenagers may continue the slide into problems with the law, substance abuse, school problems, authority defiance, gang involvement, etc.

If your son associates with people who are using drugs or displaying self-destructive behaviors, then he is probably doing the same.

It is important to encourage friendships among teenagers. We all want our children to be with persons who will have a positive influence, and stay away from persons who will encourage or engage in harmful, destructive, immoral, or illegal activities.

Moms and dads can support positive peer relationships by giving their teenagers their love, time, boundaries, and encouragement to think for themselves.

Specifically, moms and dads can show support by:
  • Being genuinely interested in your son's activities. This allows moms and dads to know their teen's friends and to monitor behavior, which is crucial in keeping teenagers out of trouble. When misbehavior does occur, moms and dads who have involved their children in setting family rules and consequences can expect less flack from their children as they calmly enforce the rules. Moms and dads who, together with their children, set firm boundaries and high expectations may find that their children's abilities to live up to those expectations grow.
  • Encouraging independent thought and expression. In this way, teenagers can develop a healthy sense of self and an enhanced ability to resist peer pressure.
  • Having a positive relationship with your son. When parent-teen interactions are characterized by warmth, kindness, consistency, respect, and love, the relationship will flourish, as will the teen's self-esteem, mental health, spirituality, and social skills.

You may not be comfortable about your son's choice of friends or peer group. This may be because of their image, negative attitudes, or serious behaviors (such as alcohol use, drug use, truancy, violence, sexual behaviors).

Here are some suggestions:
  • Check whether your concerns about their friends are real and important.
  • Do not attack your child's friends. Remember that criticizing your son's choice of friends is like a personal attack.
  • Encourage reflective thinking by helping your son think about his actions in advance and discussing immediate and long-term consequences of risky behavior.
  • Encourage your son's independence by supporting decision-making based on principles and not other people.
  • Get to know the friends of your son. Learn their names, invite them into your home so you can talk and listen to them, and introduce yourself to their moms and dads.
  • Help your son understand the difference between image (expressions of youth culture) and identity (who he is).
  • If you believe your concerns are serious, talk to your teenager about behavior and choices -- not the friends.
  • Keep the lines of communication open and find out why these friends are important to your teenager.
  • Let your son know of your concerns and feelings.
  • Remember that we all learn valuable lessons from mistakes.

No matter what kind of peer influence your son faces, he must learn how to balance the value of going along with the crowd (connection) against the importance of making principle-based decisions (independence).

And you must ensure that your son knows that he is loved and valued as an individual at home.

Mark Hutten, M.A.

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