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The Trouble With Friends : As kids try to find their way, they sometimes choose companions who might steer them toward problems. O.C. experts offer advice to concerned parents.

August 24, 1993|JOHN MORELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wendy Moonier was at her wits' end.

Her 14-year-old daughter, Tami, was a freshman at a high school near their Cypress home, and with the new environment Wendy noticed a change. Tami was pulling away from her mother's influence and spending an increasing amount of time with her new friends.

Wendy was suspicious of these new girls, who seemed to be under little or no supervision from home. "They were just not a good influence, but I couldn't tell my daughter that at the time; she thought they were great."

When the clique Tami fell in with became involved in drugs and alcohol, Wendy knew it was time to act. Three years later, there's calm in the Moonier household, and the "bad seeds" who were her daughter's friends are out of the picture.

Dislike, or even hatred, of their children's friends at some point becomes an issue for many parents. It raises questions not easily resolved, with parents weighing the impact of overreacting or underreacting.

"A child has his or her own, unique personality and will form friendships with those children they enjoy being with," says Jackie Singer, a marriage, family and child counselor in Irvine. "And they'll do that despite their parents' objections."

Problems with friends seem to be more prevalent as children enter the teen years, in which they seek independence and a sense of self. "At that age they're trying to create an identity for themselves, and part of that is the need to act out and defy their parents," Singer says. "Being with kids their parents don't approve of is part of that defiance."

The friendships formed by young children are generally more easily influenced because there is so much control over their schedules. "You can monitor who they see and you can have parties and events where kids you like can come over," says Singer. "You're also more likely to know the parents of your children's friends, which allows you to work together on problems."

However, young children aren't immune to getting involved with a problem friend. Karl and Dale Stokes of Laguna Hills were tormented for two years by the friendship their son Kyle, now 8, had with a boy two years older.

The older boy took advantage of his size and age to bully Kyle, but only at certain times. "The kid could be very nice, and the two could play for hours and have a great time. But then if the other boy wanted a toy Kyle had and Kyle refused, he'd break it. Or, when they'd be around other kids, the boy would start picking on Kyle to make himself look tough."

After getting nowhere talking with the boy's parents, Dale forbade the two to see each other. "It made me look like a witch in Kyle's eyes; this was his best friend. Besides, they spent time together in school."

The friendship ended when the boy's family moved late last year, but that didn't stop Dale's nightmares. "For weeks I'd dream that he'd shown up at our doorstep, abandoned by his parents."

*

"My mom tried everything, and I just didn't care," says Tami Moonier. "I wasn't interested in what she thought of my friends. And most of my friends were having the same battles with their parents."

In the face of those battles, Wendy Moonier sought help from the local chapter of Toughlove, a support organization that helps parents deal with problem children.

Wendy helped break up her daughter's clique in part by getting other parents involved. "We closed in on them. If they said they were going to someone's house, we made sure they were actually going there and were supervised. Everyone was aware that they needed to be watched."

Despite the actions of one parent who regularly gave the girls alcohol and drank with them, the group separated.

"They eventually got tired of getting into trouble," says Wendy.

*

The early years of independence, just before the awarding of a driver's license, are often very difficult for parents and children.

"It's one thing not to like a child's friend. But when these friends can drive and they have a car, it's hard not to be worried," says Jean Lutz, a Toughlove parent from Fountain Valley who has counseled other parents on dealing with their children.

"In one case I knew of, some 15- and 16-year-old boys were hanging out with an 18-year-old girl. The girl had money and a car, which is what the guys liked, and she liked all the attention. The boys would sneak out and they'd get beer and have her drive them around. The parents were at a loss for what to do."

The mother of one of the boys eventually confronted the girl and threatened to tell the police she was contributing to the delinquency of minors if she didn't stop seeing her son. "Between that and sending a letter to the girl's mother telling her what was going on, the relationship stopped."

*

Good communication with a friend's parents is an important option too often ignored. "You really have to talk to them, even if it's just a phone call where you introduce yourself," says Judy Albert, a marriage, family and child counselor with practices in Orange and Huntington Beach.

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