By Sylvia Rimm, PhD
Author of Growing Up Too Fast: The Rimm Report on the Secret World of America’s Middle Schoolers
There seems to be nothing more difficult for achievement-oriented parents to tolerate than seeing their kids bond with a negative peer group. Students who don't value school are often antiparents and pro-alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and casual sex and thrive on irreverent and often obnoxious music. Your kids 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 kids you'd prefer for them to befriend. Your kids may become secretive, say that you're controlling, and protest that you have no right to say with whom they can be friends.
Below are preventive strategies that can work well for encouraging your kids to avoid negative peers.
Don't pressure kids to make friends. Many of the antischool kids I've worked with are lonely, attention seeking, and sometimes aggressive as elementary-age children. Parents and teachers are anxious about their kids' lack of friends, even when they do have a few. Parents and teachers often put pressure on them to make friends, and the kids 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 kids 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 kids" are bad, because the "bad kids" are loyal to each other, although they may appear tough or mean to outsiders.
When your kids 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 kids, 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 kids.
Avoid conspiratorial relationships. Rebellious adolescents are often overempowered by parents who are divided. A mother who allies with her child against the dad, or a father who allies with a child against the mom, teaches a child 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 parents.
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 kids 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 kids 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 kids may require it most.
Help kids adjust to a move. Another important prevention scenario takes place after a move to a new community. I recommend having your child paired with other kids initially when moving to a new school. The kids 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 child's positive interests. If you do this, it's more likely that your child and those with whom she's paired will have activities or interests in common.
Sometimes teachers pair negative or needy kids with new students in the hopes of helping them. Caution your child 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.
What if your child has already been influenced by a negative peer group? The solutions below may help when you need positive intervention.
Change schools or teams. There are several possibilities for helping your kids ditch negative peer groups. Sometimes changing schools or teams can be effective. This has proven to be extremely powerful for some kids 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 child's school counselor about the possibility of changing to a different team to get him away from negative peers. This may help your child 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 child is overly engaged with the group. It also works best if the negative group doesn't live in your neighborhood.
Prohibit friendships. Sending a clear message to your child 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 kids' behavior is unacceptable, and you'll permit them to be friends outside of school only if you see a change in the other kids. When both parents agree on that philosophy, your child will likely accept it. When both parents don't agree, don't waste your time prohibiting the friendship. This is an important communication that both parents should talk through carefully.
Develop new interests. The most positive technique for removing kids 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.
Enter contests. Encourage your child 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 child's negativism. Winning kids are often excluded from peer groups that are negative about school. Winning a speech, music, art, or sports contest often gives status to students and causes them to appear more interesting to positive students. Sometimes a victory is enough to separate a tween from a negative peer group.
Plan an exciting family trip. A family trip is also an option for distracting your wayward child from negativity. Time away from peers in an entirely new environment can channel your child'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 kids 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.
Reprinted from: Growing Up Too Fast: The Rimm Report on the Secret World of America's Middle Schoolers by Sylvia Rimm, PhD (September 2005; $23.95US/$31.95CAN; 1-57954-709-5) © 2005 Sylvia Rimm. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at www.rodalestore.com
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