Young Teen, Poor Choices

Q: This year, my 14-year-old son started a new, academically-driven private high school. He became friends immediately with his peer group on the football team, and we’ve allowed him some new freedom to hang out at their homes and spend the night a couple of times. We made it clear that this is his opportunity to choose the right friends from the start, because in middle school he had some undesirable friends that we didn’t allow him to socialize with. He has always been an excellent student and athlete, but hasn’t had much of a social life outside of school since we restricted his friendships.

Recently, we discovered that our son was drinking at one of the new friend’s homes, and that several of these new football friends have poor reputations. I am at a loss for how to deal with this latest dilemma. I don’t want to restrict friendships forever, but clearly he is not responsible in this area. I think the drinking itself is an isolated event, but he was bragging about it to some old friends at church, and they expressed concern that this is his new normal (thinking that drinking is cool). I’m concerned that continuing with these new friendships will lead to more undesirable behavior.

A: This is the age-old question that has plagued parents: How to get kids to choose the right friends. From family to family, the definition of “right” friends changes slightly, but for the most part, most parents want their kids to have friends who are positive and adhere to the family’s values in word and deed.

But that desire often conflicts with a teen’s desire to choose his own friends, forge to his identity and live his own life. As a teen tries on different personas to see where he fits into the high school social scene, he will often make mistakes and pick the wrong crowd or the right crowd for the wrong reasons.

While your intentions were good, I think you might have jumped the gun a bit to allow him new freedom without investigating whether or not these new friends were the sort that you wanted him to hang out with. Not that I’m blaming you for his actions—I’m just pointing out that it’s our job as parents to ask questions, hard questions, and to hold off on some of the freedoms (like spending the night, for example) until you get to know the kids in question a bit more.

My answer to questionable friends is to invite them to your house. Open your doors and have the kids in your basement. Check in frequently but not obnoxiously. Have them over for dinner in small groups. Talk to them—not grilling them, but see what they’re interested in. Teenagers respond to genuine interest and concern like anyone else.

For the drinking, I’d sit your son down and have a hard talk about underage drinking. In fact, I’d be grounding him for at least a month—this is serious stuff, and while he might have made a fairly innocent mistake, his bragging shows he’s aware that it wasn’t right for him to drink alcohol. I’d also call the parents of teen whose house they drank in to say this is what your son said. Not to point fingers, but to inform them. Then your son doesn’t go over there again, period.

During your short, but hard, talk, I’d also let him know the stakes—that you’re serious about his obeying the law. He might try to brush it off (“It’s no big deal, Mom!”) but you don’t let that sway you. In fact, even if you or your husband drank as a teen, you don’t tell him that. It’s not important to the conversation.

But you also let him know that you realize mistakes can be made, and that you will pick him up anytime, anywhere with no questions asked at that time. You want him to call or text you when he needs help.

Finally, make sure you are spending time with him, one on one, to talk about what he wants to talk about. We take our kids individually out for breakfast with mom or dad on a regular basis to reconnect and give them that personal time. Do things for him that he likes, make sure he’s contributing to the family with chores, and love him as much as you can.

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