- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

It’s so simple when your child’s first friends are the children of your friends. Then, proximity and interests take over: Josh is in my class, so he is my best friend; Lily lives next door, so she is my other best friend.

By middle and high school, the social maze is much more complex. Your daughter wants to be in the orbit of the mean-but-popular alpha girl. Your son brings home a classmate who is the subject of unsavory rumors. Your other daughter drops that best friend next door to hang with a teen you just know has been drinking.

It’s enough to make a parent want to return to the days of the supervised preschool play group — or wish to lock everyone in the house until they’re all 18. Realistically, neither strategy will get you very far, says Rosalind Wiseman, author of the best-selling book “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence.”

“It is so much easier when children are younger because you are in charge of the logistics,” Ms. Wiseman says. “It gets harder when they get older. You have to give up some control, but not all control. I see it as guiding our children through friendships.”

Many parents will have an immediate impulse to point out what it is that rubs them the wrong way about the new friend and forbid their child to spend time with him or her. Both actions may well backfire, Ms. Wiseman says.

“You can have very legitimate reasons for not liking him,” she says, “but the way those reasons come across will push your kid in the bad kid’s direction. In your child’s mind, you are forcing her to choose between her friend and you; you never want to do that.”

Michele Borba, author of several parenting books, including “Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them,” says there are a few circumstances in which a parent can prohibit a teen from seeing a friend who is a bad influence. Top among them: when a teen’s character, reputation or personal safety is on the line.

“It’s still going to be difficult, and you are going to have to stand your ground,” Ms. Borba says. “Otherwise, tread carefully and don’t make assumptions.”

Choosing friends

Ideally, the skills to choose quality friends are being honed around the same time a parent is still picking a toddler’s playmates, Ms. Borba says. Children with good value systems are going to gravitate toward others like them, she says.

“Your kid may have different looks, interests and choices of music and activities than you,” Ms. Borba says, “but if you have done your job well, you do have control over values.”

Tina van Es of Sterling has three children, ages 16, 9 and 7. She says she has tried to teach her children from a young age that what makes a good person is what makes a good friend.

“Behavior, attitude, respect level, and is this person nice,” Mrs. van Es says are some of the values she wants her children to keep in mind. “Whether they are 7 or 17, you still have to be involved.”

Still, there are going to be times when the lure of breaking into the top clique is going to overrule mom’s advice. There probably will be a day when your child brings home a friend you do not like, Ms. Borba says. That is the time to ask yourself — and your child — questions.

“Ask yourself, ‘Why is my child choosing this friend?’” Ms. Borba says. “That may become an ‘a-ha’ moment for you.”

Ms. Borba says teens often seek out others who are what they are not. A shy child, for example, may find it exciting to be around an extrovert. A cautious one may live vicariously through a risk-taker.

“Initially, kids seek out friends who are like them,” says Peter Sheras, a clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia. Mr. Sheras is also the author of the book “I Can’t Believe You Went Through My Stuff! How to Give Your Teens the Privacy They Crave and the Guidance They Need.”

“As kids go along, they look for things in a friend like popularity and reputation,” Mr. Sheras says. “They look for friends who fill in the gaps, who might be prettier or more athletic.”

Parents should ask themselves what it is they don’t like about the new friend, Ms. Wiseman says. Be very specific, she says.

“The answer may not be exactly what you thought,” she says. “You may have prejudices you didn’t know you had.”

The next step for parents is to back away from their initial reaction and sit on it awhile, Ms. Wiseman says.

“Ask yourself, ‘What does it mean that this is the person my child has aligned with?’ and ‘What am I afraid will happen?’” she says.

When evaluating, don’t be fooled by appearances, Ms. Borba says. The class punk with black nail polish may be a compassionate honor student. The homecoming queen with impeccable manners may be secretly cruel and manipulative. Ask other parents and teachers — who see your child in a different social setting than you do — what they think of your child’s new friend.

The next step is to talk and, more important, to listen, Ms. Wiseman says. For example, if your daughter is spending time with a girl who dresses (and may or may not act) provocatively, the right way to approach it is to discuss, not demand, she says.

“Say something like, ‘I’d have to be blind not to notice Emily’s short skirts,’” Ms. Wiseman says. “Say, ‘I’m not telling you not to hang out with her — but what do you think of her appearance?’ Don’t say, ‘I don’t like the way she dresses. It’s sending the wrong message.’”

Danielle Stewart of McLean, mother of a 12-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, was recently in a situation that called for sharing her concerns rather than voicing ultimatums.

Earlier this school year, a girl started calling her son — a change in the social code that caught Mrs. Stewart by surprise. The girl called excessively, and if no one answered, she would call again minutes later.

“I showed him the pattern,” Mrs. Stewart says. “I said, ‘Is this what you want?’ I know I can’t forbid them from being friends or forbid her from calling, but I showed him why I didn’t approve, and we talked about it.”

Staying involved

Mrs. van Es has a few rules for her children and their friends. Her teenager, Shannon, cannot go to someone’s home unless Mrs. van Es has met the teen’s parents. No sleepovers are allowed until everyone has met a couple of times. No driving in other people’s cars.

Some of these rules were tightened after Shannon started spending time with a bad crowd, Mrs. van Es says.

“We had her Velcroed to our side for a year,” she says. “She was not out of our sight. I truly believe if you do tough love efficiently, it makes an impact.”

That is not to say Shannon has no social life. Mrs. van Es says the teenagers all can hang out at her house.

“I’ve got the revolving door of kids here,” she says. “None of the other parents are home. I would rather they hang out here than at the 7-Eleven store.”

Mrs. Stewart says she is trying to find a balance between letting Matthew, her rising middle schooler, navigate the social world and protecting him from what he may find there.

“I don’t know all of his friends now,” Mrs. Stewart says. “Some of the parents aren’t around that much, or they are new in town. But if I don’t let him go places, it looks like I don’t trust him. But my son is trustworthy and responsible. He’s very good at picking his friends.”

Keeping children busy can serve a dual purpose for parents and adolescents, Ms. Borba says. Unscheduled time between 2 and 6 p.m. is when many children are likely to get into trouble. Activities mean parents know where their children are and, most likely, who is there with them.

Mrs. Stewart agrees. Matthew plays the drums in the school band and plays on an ice-hockey team. He also is involved in church activities.

“He is a busy guy,” Mrs. Stewart says. “The more activities they do, the better it is. A lot of the kids on the hockey team will be there with him in middle school next year.”

More info:

Books —

• “Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them,” by Michele Borba, Jossey-Bass, 2005. This book covers friendship issues from bad friends to bullying to simply making new friends.

• “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realties of Adolescence,” by Rosalind Wiseman, Three Rivers Press, 2003. This is an eye-opening book about the social makeup of what Ms. Wiseman calls “girl world.” There is advice for helping girls make good decisions and find quality friends.

• “I Can’t Believe You Went Through My Stuff! How to Give Your Teens the Privacy They Crave and the Guidance They Need,” by Peter Sheras, Fireside, 2004. This book covers how to give teens the freedom to explore and learn from their mistakes.

• “The Behavior Survival Guide for Kids: How to Make Good Choices and Stay Out of Trouble,” by Tom McIntyre, Free Spirit, 2003. This book is aimed at children ages 10 to 14. It has practical advice on learning to stay out of trouble.

• “Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They’re Really Saying,” by Michael Riera, Perseus Publishing, 2003. This book has good advice for understanding teenagers and the changing roles of parents and friends in their lives.

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