I Don’t Like My Kid’s Friends. What Do I Do?
Is it ever too late to help your child rethink a friendship? How do you lay the groundwork to help children choose the right people to be in their lives? Dr. Lisa explains how the friends our kids chose can also give us a window into the people they may date. Even during the teenage years Lisa says there are ways to help foster new friendships. Reena asks when should a parent intervene.
August 31, 2021 | 24 min
Transcript | I Don’t Like My Kid’s Friends. What Do I Do?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 45: I Don’t Like My Kid’s Friends. What Do I Do?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: Do you remember that feeling when school started when you were a kid and everything depended on whose class you were in and which friends were in your class? I mean that determines so much.
LISA: Absolutely and I’m living it again in some ways, I’m sure you are too, with my elementary school daughter where every fall, you know, they’re sort of eagerly awaiting the letter about who her teacher is and then calling around to all her, you know, parents, like who do you guys have? Who do you guys have? Because they’re kids, you know, she wants in her class and she wants to know they’re going to be there. It’s hute. It’s huge.
REENA: But you know I think a lot about how do I have my kid understand what makes a good friend, who’s a good friend. I realize my parents don’t really mettle much in the friends that I chose. They kind of were happy and didn’t intervene, but we got this letter from a mom that got me thinking. It says: ‘Dear Lisa, we have three daughters. Two are teenagers and we also have a tween. We’re pleased with so many friend choices they’re making. However, our oldest daughter, who is 17, chooses friends who show her lots of attention but do not provide the most positive peer influence. She struggles with self confidence in social situations even though she’s very bright, athletic and accomplished. How can we address the confidence issue and in turn also address her choice of friends? We have one more year before she leaves for college. Thank you for considering my question.’ What do you think the mom should do? It’s interesting. I mean she sounds like she’s got this great kid.
LISA: She does sound like she has a great kid, and I love the way the mom posed this, which is like this really great kid with low confidence, and so she’s drawn to a group that shows her a lot of attention, you know, maybe showers her with, you know, affection or interest, but they’re a little naughty is what it sounds like. You know I mean she says, what does she say? Like poor social choices?
LISA: So you get the impression that maybe they’re in a faster lane than is comfortable for this mom or they’re pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior or they’re doing risky things, and so this mom has so thoughtfully, you know, kind of constructed the problem, which is I think if my kid felt better about herself she might not hang out with kids who do these dicey things, but these kids are good to her and so she is going along with or close friends with kids who are doing things that I don’t feel good about.
REENA: So, do you think there’s a problem? The kid sounds like she’s doing well but the mom is sort of like, eh, I don’t know.
LISA: That’s actually a good way to ask it. Like what’s the problem here, right? So that, I think, is how we’re going to start to try to pull this apart. So, there’s different kinds of problems that could be happening here, and if we can home in on, you know, what the problems might be it actually then gives us a way to think about what might be done about it. So, the first question I would ask is is the daughter uncomfortable about these friendships? Because, especially at 17, you’re going to need her buy-in to make any changes, and it’s not clear from the letter, but I think it’s the kind of question that a parent would ask first anytime they don’t feel good about a kid’s friends, and this this girl’s on the older side, she’s 17, but this happens all through development, you know, where you’re like, really? That kid? You want to hang out with that kid? And I think even with younger kids parents can feel like they want to get in and intervene and engineer and try to create distance from the kiddo that they’re not so keen on, but even with younger kids the question I would have parents ask first is does my kid have any reservations about this friendship?
REENA: And if they don’t but you do?
LISA: Well so interesting. So I think first you want to look for that possibility where you say to them , you know, I’m imagining that like a younger kid because I think that’s especially when parents can feel very interventionist, you know every time you hang out with Billy you guys get yourselves in trouble. Have you noticed this? You know, like that kind of question, and I think you could get a couple different answers. The kid could be like, actually I have, and then the parent can say, so what do you want to do about that? And now this is an ideal situation because you’ve got the kid is in some conflict about it themselves. They’ve got a problem as far as they’re concerned, which then means they’re much more likely to partner with you or take some initiative around trying to fix the problem of, you know, hanging out with the kid who gets himself in trouble. That’d be great. It also may be where the kid’s like, yeah whatever. Billy’s lot’s of fun, and the kid does not seem to be in much conflict about it at all. So then let’s say you’ve got that second scenario, either with my imagined sort of younger Billy friendship or at this, you know, 17-year-olds older friendship. So say the parent has either posed the question or kinda knows, the kid’s actually fine with it. You know the kid feels good enough about this and it’s the parent who’s uneasy, it’s the parent who’s not comfortable. Then I think that sets us down a very different path.
REENA: So, what if you reach the point, you know, I actually worry about dating, too. That I’ll feel, oh that kid? At some point, my kids will bring home somebody and I’ll wonder that. But if your kid is okay with the relationship and doesn’t have a problem, then what do you do?
LISA: Well so then I think the parent needs to try to figure out what’s behind the poor choice of friends, and this mom has a theory right that the daughter’s confidence is low, but that would be where I’d want this to go which is, okay, the kid is okay with it or says they’re okay with it or actually is okay, you know, does seem to be completely comfortable with this arrangement, whether it’s a not ideal friendship or not ideal romance, but the parent is not okay with it. so, then the parent needs to think, well why is my kid going along with this or putting up with this or drawn to, you know, this friendship that feels less than ideal? And you know so in this particular letter the mom’s view is like, the girl’s confidence is low, and again even with the younger child but especially with the 17-year-old, I would want the parent to try to raise those questions directly with the child, and I know I say this all the time but I’m just going to keep saying it again because it seems to me like such a critical principle. All teenagers have two sides. You know, they have a impulsive, less mature, sometimes snarky side, and they have a philosophical, broad-minded, thoughtful side, and so I would have this mom reach out to her daughter and say, you know honey, help me understand this. You’re amazing. You are such a neat kid on so many levels, and yet my sense is you don’t feel that way about yourself, and to put that out there for the 17-year-old to either respond to or just to chew on.
REENA: What do you do though? Because it feels like by the teenage years, I would think, like by 17, it’s impossible to change their friendships, right? And if you were to be like, I don’t like that person, when I was 17 I think I would have rebelled against that, no?
LISA: Absolutely right. I mean and that’s what’s so hard is, you know, the piece around, you know, putting the question about confidence for the girl between the parent and child, like that one keeps it away from their friends, but you know kids know when we don’t like their friends. Kids are very aware of this.
LISA: Right? So even if a mom or a dad is very earnest in saying like, cutie, I worry about your confidence, you know, kids are working with a lot of contextual information about what’s behind anything that comes out of our mouths, and so the kid is going to be very well aware of like, okay mom may be what about my confidence but this is about my friends, and so then, you know, it does mean that sometimes it’s going to end up either on the table or understood that the parent is uneasy with the friendship. So, the first thing I would actually have the parent do is to cop to that because kids know it, right? I mean it and it just, I mean we really have to work with the assumption that you pretty much can’t put anything past kids, and you certainly can’t put anything past teenagers.
REENA: So, how do you have that conversation? Do you say like, okay I know you’re not going to listen to what I’m about to say but?
LISA: Actually I do kind of like that set up because I think it’s honest. So, you might say, look, I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but I think you suspect you know, I would just own that, and say look, I get uneasy about your friendships with this particular pack of kids, and I’ll tell you why. I think that they are doing things that are not altogether safe, and I get it that they love you and you love them, but I worry about your safety when you’re with them, and that does seem to be the nugget the mom’s concern, you know that they are you know doing some things that are pushing the edge, and I would put that conflict in front of the teenager and have the teenager respond to it. So, I would actually own the problem, you know, and I think you can imagine a lot of different scenarios of not liking a kid’s friends. You could say, you know I get it that you really like these kids. I don’t like the way I see them acting out in public, or I get it that you like these kids, but, you know, I’ve seen some of the stuff they put up online and it’s really offensive. Own it straight out.
REENA: Own it straight out. So you find, though, because you deal with a ton of teens, you see it on the teens, you’ve understood this for decades, do they listen to you when you approach it to them? Because what I’m most terrified about the teenage years is I have a certain opinion. I know they’re going down the wrong path, but they’re not going to listen to me because I remember what it was like to be a teen.
LISA: Oh,100 percent, Reena. Here is the thing that is amazing about teenagers. They can actually be having the same questions, right? You could have a teenager who’s like, I don’t know about these friends, like I feel like I’m getting in trouble all the time or they’re doing stuff that feels really risky to me, and then if the parent is like, we need to talk about your friends. They seem to be getting in trouble all the time. They’re doing things that feel risky to me. The kid’s going to be like, they’re my friends. I can’t believe you are asking these questions. I don’t know what you’re talking about. So we do. You’re getting to the heart of it, you know, like that getting into the trenches of this is that if a parent tries to engineer, especially a teenager’s, friendships it is almost certainly going to backfire.Okay so here’s what you do to stay out of that problem. Do not have this be a conflict between you and your kid. Have this try to be a conflict between the kid and the kid. So, the way I would have this mom walk up to this problem is to say to her daughter, you know separate from the confidence conversation because I think that is something that is underneath this and worth exploring, but say to the daughter, listen, I know these are your friends. I know you really like them. I also know that it is a priority for you to be safe. Like you are a smart, level-headed kid, and you want to be safe. Tell me how this works because I know they get into stuff that’s not safe. How do you navigate this tension between hanging out with that pack and keeping yourself safe? Like lay it out for me, like I want to know, and and make that sit with the kids, and you’re not asking her opinion, you’re not telling her what to do, well you are asking her opinion about how she manages us, but you’re not throwing down, you’re not creating an ultimatum, but surface that dilemma, but make it her dilemma.
REENA: Make it her dilemma, okay. Is it ever too late to help your kid rethink friendship? Before this mom is saying, she’s got one year left before her kid goes off to college, and I’m also thinking about the elementary aged years where my kids are at. How do you help set them up to find and gravitate towards good friends?
LISA: So there’s two different questions here. One is is it too late? And the others how you set it up? Oo let’s take them one at a time. Okay, so on the too late, bluntly, honestly, I think for this mom it may be too late for this girl to change friendship groups at least at school. You know if these are her school friends. We have to remember all the time that, you know, these friendships occur in these vast networks and webs. These kids are connected in a million ways. To shift friendship groups, to try to drop a friend is really, really hard, and what I mean by that like, you know, especially like seventh grade, so hard, and sometimes kids get themselves into dynamics that they don’t want to be in, and the parent will say like, well maybe you just hang out with other kids, or go sit with somebody else at lunch. Okay try to remember being a seventh grader. If you’re a seventh grader and you typically sit at a lunch table with this group of kids, and then one day you say, I’m going to walk in the lunchroom. I’m not going to sit with the kids I have sat with all year. I’m going to go sit at the other table, right? You might as well drop a bomb in the cafeteria, right? I mean that is a huge event in the seventh grade. So, it sounds so good to us to be like, you know, just try out other kids. It is usually unrealistic. So, what I would say at this point in development, and I mean certainly my adolescence and especially when kids are no longer changing classes as much, you know they’re not assigned a grade levels where they’re with their with the same home room all year, I think there’s just a lot of fodder for conversation about what friendships are working or not. A lot of asking kids to navigate the dilemmas their friendships put them in and how they feel good about that or don’t, and then I would say, you know, like for a high school junior or senior, you know, like this girl is, the parent should probably accept these are going to be her school friends for the duration of high school, and instead turn the focus of conversation to what she’s learned about these friendships that she wants to take with her to the next step of her social life, that whatever else, I know this is probably really frustrating for this mom, there’s going to be a giant reset button on these friends when they all leave high school, you know, and whatever they do next, and so the kind of conversation I think would be really fruitful is to say, what have you learned in terms of what works for you in these friendships? What have you learned in terms of what you wish were different about your friendships? How can you pursue that, you know, let’s presume she’s going to college, in college. Like what are you going to keep an eye out for? What are you going to avoid? But to treat it as, you know, we’re all learning and growing, we all have phases of our lives, we’ll have chapters in our friendships, and to be forward looking, but to not have the idea that it’s so easy for kids to shift around friendship groups or drop friends when they are all still going to school together every day, eating lunch together every day, you know assigned to lab groups in science together every day. It is not easy just to back out of a bad friendship situation.
REENA: Wo what about the setting up? What do you do about that?
LISA: Okay. A lot of this parents don’t have too much say over because so much of it goes down at school, and so much of it goes down at recess, and what I think parents can take comfort in is at the younger ages there’s a lot more fluidity in terms of who kids are friends with. You know that friendships don’t often last the duration of an entire school year. Kids move much more commonly in and out of friendships over the course of the year. So, I like the fact, I mean it’s all it’s a lot easier, young kids are often talking with us about the kids at school who they like and don’t like, talking with us about what’s going on on the playground or you know at recess, and so I would really have the parent entertain those questions and those conversations as opportunities to talk about who does it feel good to be with, who does not feel good to be with, and then the very tricky situation, who’s the kid where sometimes it feels great and sometimes it feels awful to begin with them, right? That’s so common, that kinda hot and cool kid.
LISA: And really to ask questions, be really curious, and then to continue to stick to the line in the response to say kids, here’s the goal: you want to find kids where being with them brings out the best in you. That when you are with them you are the best version of yourself. And so who does that for you? And who, when you’re with them, are you not at your best? We all have better and worse aspects of our personality. So, kiddo, my goal for you is find the kids that bring out the part of yourself that you like most and spend time with them. So that’s where we want to offer guidance on the front end.
REENA: I worry about dating. I mean my kids are only in elementary school, but what I worry about most is they’re going to bring home somebody I just can’t stand, and I think that goes back to picking good friends, right? I mean.
LISA: It does.
REENA: Am I the only parent who is like, the kid is 10 and 9 and I and I’m already worried about this?
LISA: I bet you’re not the only parent, and I actually think you’re on the right track. I mean no surprise, but like we do know that how people have friendships also dictates how they have romances, and a lot of it, again, comes down to how do you expect to be treated? How do you expect relationship transactions to go down? And so kids who are holding their friends to high standards hang out with kids who make them feel good, hang out with kids who bring out the parts of themselves that they take most pride in, those kids are more likely to go on into romances that are equitable and kind, and kids who get themselves into friendships where they kind of take turns being awful to each other, or, you know, there’s kind of a boss and a follower, that doesn’t necessarily paint a promising picture for the kind of romances they’re going to tolerate because we we should think about romance is like friendship plus kissing. So we want kids to have good friendships and I think, again, there’s nothing you say to a kid about the kind of friendships you want to have, you know or want them to have, that doesn’t play into the kind of romances you want them to have. You should be at your best. You should feel good about who you are with that person. Those are universals.
REENA: What do you think really cuts through, particularly with teens, about getting them to understand the cost that can come with bad friendships?
LISA: You know it’s interesting when I think about our friendships I think about these as the relationships that are optional. You know we have so many relationships in our lives that are non-optional, like you know the families we’re born into, and the people, you know, our bosses, things like that, like we spend a lot of time in relationships that we don’t get to choose, and so one way to construct conversations around friendships is like, hey, this is the great domain of choice, right? This is where you have total say, and, you know, a junior and senior high school may be like, yeah right now I actually don’t have much say. I got these kids in my class. These are the kids I’m friends with. My options are limited, that may be true, but at broad scale I think we want to help kids focus on the fact that if they’re in a friendship that feels bad that’s on them. That they had a choice there and they keep having a choice there, and we do find ourselves in relationships I don’t feel so good, and sometimes we can’t get out of them, but we want to try to feel good in our relationships and so then we want that to be especially true in the ones where we really do have say.
REENA: So before you go I’d love to get your advice, Lisa, on parenting to go.
LISA: The parenting to go for this one reminds me of something we were talking about last season about when kids are struggling to make friends, but I think that there’s a piece here that applies when you don’t like a kid’s friends, and that one of the solutions that parents can help affect even with an older teenager is to try to have new people in that kid’s traffic pattern. To try to create conditions where other, perhaps in this case, better friendships could happen. So that for younger kids may be in a after school programming or cool things in the summer. For older kids things like volunteer positions and jobs, especially jobs that are populated by other teenagers, things like life guarding, you know, working at an ice cream store. It is so often the case that in the job situation kids meet other teenagers who are neat and they enjoy and that can help them start to branch out in their friendships or make better friendships, and they also they don’t have to dump their school friends, which is a very hard thing to do, but it does help them expand their social repertoire and put themselves in positions where maybe they’re getting a feel for how you really want them to experience friendships as enhancing, joyful and really bringing out the best.
REENA: So much to think about on just the friendship level for your kid.
LISA: It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal.
REENA: Thanks so much, Lisa. Thanks so much. In our episode next week we’re going to look into how you help the kid who shuts you out. See you next week.
LISA: See you next.