There seems to be nothing more difficult for moms & dads to tolerate than seeing their children bond with a negative peer group. Kids who don't value school are often anti-moms & dads and pro-alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and casual sex and thrive on irreverent and often obnoxious music. Your children will probably proclaim that they are good and loyal friends or that they're much nicer and less shallow than the "preppies" and "jocks." These negative peers may indeed be kinder to your children than some other children you'd prefer for them to befriend. Your children may become secretive, say that you're controlling, and protest that you have no right to say with whom they can be friends.
Many of the anti-school children I've worked with are lonely, attention seeking, and sometimes aggressive as elementary-age children. Moms & dads and teachers are anxious about their children' lack of friends, even when they do have a few. Moms & dads and teachers often put pressure on them to make friends, and the children connect having a large group of close friends with healthy adjustment. They feel that adults are disappointed in them when they don't have friends, and by middle school, they become so anxious about making friends that they're willing to do almost anything to be included in any group that validates them. They develop a deep resentment toward the bright, achieving, or athletic children who haven't accepted them, and they share that resentment in order to build solidarity with another group. In some ways, they believe that "good children" are bad, because the "bad children" are loyal to each other, although they may appear tough or mean to outsiders.
When your children are a little lonely, it's important to label it as independence even though you realize it isn't easy for them. In that way, you avoid putting too much pressure on them to make friends and become popular. Use this time to help them learn skills and develop interests that will enable them to share activities with others. For example, learning to play chess will encourage them to play with other children, developing an interest in music or art will give them a passion to share with other positive young people who also enjoy those activities, or playing soccer or taking gymnastics classes will make them feel like part of a team. Once they have friends who share their interests, they will be less likely to feel pressured to unite with negative children.
Rebellious teens are often over-empowered by moms & dads who are divided. A mother who allies with her youngster against the dad, or a father who allies with a youngster against the mom, teaches a youngster that relationships become closer and more intimate when two people share a common enemy. Learning to feel close to a person only when there's a common enemy can become a very negative but intense habit, which transfers naturally to finding a peer group or even a boy- or girlfriend who is against school or moms & dads.
This alliance-against-an-enemy relationship with a parent becomes an even greater risk during or after a divorce. Mothers who have been rejected by their husbands can be especially vulnerable to sharing intimate details about the husband's behavior. Although at first it seems that children understand the situation and value the intimate sharing, this too-intimate practice almost always backfires. Divorce is no time to assume that children are mature enough to be your counselors or confidantes. Not only does this place children in an impossible dilemma, but it also teaches them to disrespect and rebel against their other parent, which will in turn cause the other parent to teach them disrespect for you. You're giving up your adult responsibility when your children may require it most.
Another important prevention scenario takes place after a move to a new community. I recommend having your youngster paired with other children initially when moving to a new school. The children with whom she's paired could make her feel more comfortable, as well as include her in a positive group. The selection of those new friends should be made carefully. You can probably do that most diplomatically if you share with the teacher or counselor your youngster's positive interests. If you do this, it's more likely that your youngster and those with whom she's paired will have activities or interests in common.
Sometimes teachers pair negative or needy children with new children in the hopes of helping them. Caution your youngster that finding good friends takes time. Be reassuring that there's no need to hurry it along, and that you're certain that eventually he'll find good friends. Seeking popularity encourages the quest for status and quantity of friends, which may or may not turn out to be a good thing, depending on the values of the popular peer group in the school.
There are several possibilities for helping your children ditch negative peer groups. Sometimes changing schools or teams can be effective. This has proven to be extremely powerful for some children who have been clients at my Family Achievement Clinic. Most middle schools use a team approach with between two and four teams in a school. Talk to your youngster's school counselor about the possibility of changing to a different team to get him away from negative peers. This may help your youngster make new friends, particularly if he has at least one positive friend in a new team. Changing schools or teams works most effectively when negative relationships are just beginning, before your youngster is overly engaged with the group. It also works best if the negative group doesn't live in your neighborhood.
Sending a clear message to your youngster that you wish he not befriend a particular individual or group may make a difference for middle schoolers. You'll need to justify the prohibition by explaining that the other children' behavior is unacceptable, and you'll permit them to be friends outside of school only if you see a change in the other children. When both moms & dads agree on that philosophy, your youngster will likely accept it. When both moms & dads don't agree, don't waste your time prohibiting the friendship. This is an important communication that both moms & dads should talk through carefully.
The most positive technique for removing children from a negative peer group is to get them involved in positive peer experiences, such as fun enrichment programs, special-interest groups, drama, music, sports, Scouts, religious groups, summer programs, camps, or youth travel programs. They may not want to join without their friends, so introducing them to someone who's already part of a group may encourage them. A teacher or group leader may help to facilitate new friendships.
Encourage your youngster to enter contests or activities in which he has a chance of winning or receiving an important part. Don't hesitate to talk to a coach or teacher privately about your efforts to reverse your youngster's negativism. Winning children are often excluded from peer groups that are negative about school. Winning a speech, music, art, or sports contest often gives status to children and causes them to appear more interesting to positive children. Sometimes a victory is enough to separate a tween from a negative peer group.
A family trip is also an option for distracting your wayward youngster from negativity. Time away from peers in an entirely new environment can channel your youngster's independence. One-on-one trips with a parent may be effective in reducing tension and enhancing family closeness. A trip with only one parent and one tween may be more productive than if the whole family is present, because the tween will be freed from sibling rivalry issues.
If you introduce any of these courses of action to your children, don't expect them to like it. These options shouldn't be suggested as choices, or your children surely won't choose them. You can, however, permit or even encourage them to make choices among the options. For example, they can choose between a summer writing or music program, which will hopefully encourage new and positive interests and friendships.
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