How can parents limit their kids' contact with delinquent peers?
What should you do if you think your teen is spending time with delinquent friends? Many parents would say, "Don't let your teen spend time with friends who are a bad influence!" This reaction is understandable, since there's a lot of evidence linking delinquent friends to negative behaviour. But does forbidding kids from interacting with delinquent friends drive them closer together? A study published in the current issue of Child Development examined whether forbidden friendships become "forbidden fruit" for adolescents.
Researchers collected data from nearly 500 13 year-olds, their best friends, their parents, and their siblings; data were collected annually for three years, and confirmed the fears of many parents. When mothers and fathers disapproved of friends and prohibited their teens from spending time with them, the teens had MORE contact with delinquent peers one year later, and engaged in more delinquent behaviour themselves 2 years later. Previous research has shown that most children believe it is within their rights to choose their friends, but parents who are concerned about peers' delinquent behaviour are likely to consider access to such friends as a parental responsibility. The authors thought that the disconnect between parental control and the developing adolescent need for autonomy might drive teens toward their peers and increase the impact of peers on their behaviour. Interestingly, although controlling access to friends had a negative impact, other aspects of parental control, such as requiring information about adolescent's whereabouts and what they do in their unsupervised time, did not increase delinquent peer affiliation.
So if forbidding friendships runs the risk of having the opposite impact, what should parents do? Previous research has shown that if parents explain their concerns well while supporting their teen's autonomy, there can be a positive impact. Offering support and guidance has also been shown in prior studies to have good outcomes as well. Unsurprisingly, a warm, supportive parent-child relationship along with high expectations appears to have better long-term outcomes than a more controlling, punishing approach. If that sounds familiar, you might have listened to our interview with Dr. Gordon Neufeld!
Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor. Doctor Brian discussed kids in general in this article, but every child is unique; your experience may vary.