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What To Do When Your Teen is Hanging With The Wrong Crowd

One of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with as a parent was when my daughter was hanging out with the “wrong crowd” in high school.  When I think back to that time, all the painful feelings come flooding back.

I spent many sleepless nights filled with worry about the choices she might be making. I was angry and felt powerless, “Why is my kid wanting to hang out with a crowd that is only bringing her down?” “How can I get her away from these bad kids?”

One night was particularly upsetting when our daughter was grounded and her friends sat in the driveway honking the horn. As she dashed for the door, my husband yelled, “You can’t leave this house!” My daughter yelled back, “Try and make me stay home!” A wrestling match ensued with my husband forcefully holding his hand on the front door so she couldn’t escape. She started crying and screaming, “You don’t understand me! Only my friends do!” She was right.

If you’re relating, you may be feeling powerless and desperate too, wondering how you can get your teen away from these negative influences.

“What do you do when your child is hanging out with the wrong crowd?” is a common question many parents of teenagers ask.

Over fifteen years later, my daughter and I have had many conversations about what she needed from us during that time. We’ve talked about how my husband and I could Have reacted differently And How that could have made all the difference when she was hanging with kids that were making poor decisions.

8 Things That Make All the Difference When Your Teen is Hanging with the Wrong Crowd

Fight the urge to criticize their friends.

In an effort to protect my daughter and to help her see the light of the negative influences of these friends, I would repeatedly point out all the reasons they were “bad” for her. This is an ineffective strategy that we often take as parents and it never works.

We need to accept that we can’t control who our kids choose as friends. The more we do, the more it creates a wedge, and the more we can become the enemy. It kills any influence we may have had.

As they enter the adolescent years, their friends become more important than anyone. When we criticize our kids’ friends, even if they know we’re right, they will defend them every time. Taking this approach will create defensiveness, hostility and drive a wedge in your relationship. 

Put your relationship first and accept and love them like crazy.

In my fear and attempts to protect my daughter and to keep her safe, I forgot what I was fighting for. No wonder she wanted to hang out with these friends, she felt accepted and liked by them.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s to put your relationship with your teenager above all else. Rather than playing defense trying to keep our kids from the “bad kids,” we need to start playing offense and fight for our relationship with them.

How do we do that?

We learn to unconditionally accept and love them no matter what choices they are making. We listen. We seek to understand them. We learn to be objective and realize that this isn’t about us.

We start by being curious to really know them and to understand what their deeper needs are – to matter, to belong, and to feel good about themselves. And we begin to try to meet those needs in healthy ways.

We become a safe place where they know they can say anything and we’re not going to freak out.

We must put our fears aside and really listen. When we just listen without judgment, we become a safe place where our kids don’t feel the need to seek it in less desirable places.

Don’t blame your teenager’s behavior on the “bad’ kids.

When my daughter was hanging with the wrong crowd I wanted to believe it wasn’t my kid, it’s was the “bad” kids she was hanging with that were leading her down the wrong path.  I encounter this thinking all the time working with parents.

First of all, there are no “bad” kids, only bad choices that kids are making, oftentimes because they are struggling with something, hurting, or wanting to belong.

The reason our kids are hanging with them is they are similar to them. They feel accepted and feel a sense of belonging, which at this age is a huge need.

Nothing will change if we keep blaming the “bad” kids and don’t ask ourselves why our kid is wanting to hang out with them and how we can steer them to get their needs met in healthier ways.

Share your concerns.

Sharing our concerns about the people our kids are spending time with is different than judging and criticizing them and way more effective.

Let them know that you know their friends are important to them but be specific about your concerns.

“I understand that your friends are important to you, but I don’t like that Erica got arrested for smoking pot. I don’t want you smoking pot. I want good things for you. If you are hanging out with them chances are you will make similar decisions.”

Keep it simple and don’t keep repeating yourself.

Have clear expectations and rules.

Unfortunately, you can’t control your teenager’s choice of friends but you can be clear about your expectations and rules while they are living in your home.

Don’t be afraid to say “no.” Kids need to behave responsibly in order to earn the right to use the car, to go out with friends, and to have privileges. Drinking, using drugs, and not doing homework isn’t responsible behavior. Our job as parents is to hold them accountable.

Make it very clear: “No matter what you see your friends or other kids doing, there is no using drugs. That’s our expectation of you.”  

Don’t lecture. No yelling. Calmly state the expectations and expect them not to like them. That’s okay. Empathize and stand firm.

If your kid’s friends are making poor choices you can tell them you don’t want them hanging out with them or set limits on how much time they spend with them.

Understand that they may defy you and go out with them anyway, but when you’re clear and your teen understands what the expectations and rules are to begin with, you can have consequences in place to hold them accountable for their choices.

Be curious and help them to self-reflect by asking good questions.

A powerful approach to take is to ask questions to help our kids to reflect on the choices they are making rather than telling them the reasons they should be making different choices.

For example, you can ask, “Tell me what you like about Sue and Holly.”

“How do you feel when you’re around them?”

Brace yourself for what they might say and go into the conversation with an open mind to hear what they have to say.

Asking questions are effective because they help your teen to hear themselves talk out loud and think about their values and the decisions they are making and if they align with who they want to be.

Give them the message, “I trust you.”

Without realizing it at the time, the message my husband and I were sending our daughter was, “I don’t trust you to make good decisions.”

Plants grow according to the seeds we sow. Our words are seeds and the messages and words we instill in our kids oftentimes are the fruit they will bear.

Our kids need to hear, “I believe in your ability to make good decisions and figure out what is best for you.” The words we speak into them have power and our kids will rise to the words and messages we instill in them.

I know this is counter-intuitive and may even feel like you are lying when your teenager is hanging with the wrong crowd and making poor choices but they need to hear that you believe in their ability to make good decisions.

Make your home a safe, loving, and fun place.

Ask yourself if you’re home is a safe, loving, and fun place for your teen to be. If the answer is no, think about why that might be and what you can do to change it.

Find ways to get your teen involved in positive activities. If they gravitate towards living on “the edge” find healthy outlets to express this part of themselves.  

It’s important for us to realize that some kids will be rebellious more than others. Part of this is developmental. They are individuating and figuring out who they are separate from us. What we learned with our daughter was the more we tried to control the worse she would fight and cling more to these friends.

This was as much a learning process for us as it was for her. She needed to know that we were on her side. Our expectations and limits were because we were for her although at the time we didn’t know how to show her.

Today at 27 she has repeatedly thanked us for caring and wanting the best for her. Our kids are going to make mistakes, some more than others but the more we can accept, love, and guide them with clear limits and consequences in place the more we can insure that they will come around.