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90'S FAMILY

A Bad Seed

If a child is hanging out with the wrong crowd, the worst thing a parent can do is forbid the friendship. Instead, turn it into a life lesson.

May 19, 1996|VALERIE J. NELSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joel Atia fell in with the wrong crowd in third grade. He started hanging out with the tough boys who threw spitballs and acted up in class. Soon, he was tagged as a troublemaker--and hated it.

His mother didn't try to end the friendships. After all, "you can't control recess," she said. But she seized the opportunity to teach him a lesson in life.

"I said, 'This is how it starts. It's guilt by association. You are judged by the people you hang out with,' " said Ann Atia, 38, a licensed clinical social worker at UCLA.

Joel is again walking the straight and narrow as a fourth-grader, known to sometimes hang out with a gentle boy named Ben, a friendship his mother encourages by arranging play dates.

Parents who find themselves taken aback by their child's choice of friends actually should thank them for invading their family's life, say the experts.

"If another child manipulates your child or makes them the brunt of jokes, it really presents an opportunity to help your child learn how to deal with people as opposed to shielding him," said Gerry LeGagnoux, a faculty member at UCLA's School of Education who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and a private practice in Santa Monica.

A parent who prevents a child from having these bumpy life experiences may be increasing the likelihood of the child making bad decisions later on. "Respect your child's decision, then help them with the consequences of that decision," LeGagnoux said.

"We need to see every problem as an opportunity for learning," said Jane Nelsen, author of the "Positive Discipline" series of books (Prima Publishing). "It's very important to help kids think through why certain friends might not be helpful to them instead of just telling them.

"Ask them 'What do you think about these characteristics? How might they benefit? How might they hurt you?' Have a discussion that draws it forth from them."

She also suggests using "emotional honesty," in which the parent shares feelings about the friendship without drawing a line in the sandbox. "Say, 'I feel scared because they might influence you to get into trouble.' Share your concerns so that they know them and it doesn't sound like an edict or a lecture."

Whatever you do, don't forbid the friendship. It's an open invitation for rebellion, especially in the teen years.

One Los Angeles couple forbade their daughter to see a girlfriend, but it just "created a situation where she would lie to us. It didn't work. I always felt funny about that. If your kids want to see a friend, I don't believe you can stop them," said the father, whose 17-year-old is back in school after spending six months in a group home for shoplifting.

His daughter, who also used drugs and skipped school, is slipping back into friendships that her father doesn't care for. "I am talking to her about it. We don't want to go back into old patterns of behavior," he said. The father and ex-wife also are picking up parenting skills in family therapy.

Parents of teenagers have a responsibility to meet their children's friends, said Herbert Blaufarb, director of outpatient treatment services at San Fernando Valley Child Guidance Clinic in Northridge. He suggests meeting the friend in person and chatting with their parents on the phone.

Parents can also invite the friend to a family dinner. "If a friend is an objectionable character, the child will have an opportunity to compare his behavior, statements and attitude with those of members within the family circle," Blaufarb said.

When major character issues come up with the friends of younger children, such as stealing or racism, Blaufarb firmly advises intervening by talking with the child's parents, rather than the child, because the message should come from that child's home. Then use the occasion to reinforce your family's values by "telling your child that isn't nice what Johnny did," he said.

Advising against a friendship could end up hurting a child's self-esteem, which "is based on a sense of accomplishment. I can do. I can decide. For a parent to come in and tell their child, 'Don't have this friend,' it undercuts their decision. What does that tell them about their decision-making ability? It's much more meaningful for the child, as long as it's not major trauma, to start to realize, 'I get in trouble when I am around this person,' " UCLA's LeGagnoux said.

Sometimes acquaintances are not the child's choice. When adults who are friends have families, friendships can turn into a family affair. What do you do if the child of one of your best friends is the tough kid you'd rather not let your child near? Use damage control--cut back on the times the kids get together by trying to see the family as a couple, Blaufarb said.

Behind parents' anxiety is the nagging worry that their child will mutate into the bad kid by picking up negative characteristics. If a child is attracted to a friend who repels his parents, the parents should try to put a positive spin on it.

"Instead of the parents worrying about the influence another child might have on their child, turn that around so that their child has influence on the other," said Nelsen, who raised seven children and has a doctorate in educational psychology.

Do this by saying, " 'I'm not comfortable having you go there, but he can come here.' Invite these kids who have problems to a positive environment. Say, 'I'm really worried about this friend. I think he has some questionable characteristics, but I have faith in you that you can be a bigger influence on him than he is on you.' Think about how empowering that is for a child."

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