Your child is hilarious, interesting, clever—frankly, he's all-around delightful. But his friends are ...well, we're all adults here, so let's just come out with it: Some of them are weird. You don't get them, and you suspect that the other grade school students don't either. You want to deal with the situation in the most unobtrusive and sensitive manner possible, and you definitely don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but you don't want to ignore warning signs of an unhealthy and possibly toxic relationship either.
To find out how to manage this parenting dilemma, we called Matthew Goldfine, PhD, a clinical child psychologist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. He treats children, teens and adults. We asked him for advice on five types of friends.
1. The (Potentially) Bad Influence
How you'd describe them: They act out, make the kinds of poor choices that you're always cautioning your children about, and are often reprimanded by the teacher.
How your child would describe them: "FUN!"
How you should handle this situation: Goldfine says this is the type of friendship that tends to worry parents the most—with good reason. "Studies show that delinquency can be almost contagious," he says. Your task is to figure out what kind of troublemaker this one is. There's no magic trick to help you with this, but you can start with the list of behaviors that are unacceptable to you and your spouse, and if you hear that this new friend is engaging in them—and worse, egging on your kid—then you shouldn't feel bad about breaking up the friendship ASAP. Goldfine says that other warning signs are "clear intentions that this child wants to make other people angry, unhappy or hurt through their actions." Be on the lookout for a child who often responds to a teacher's instructions by shouting, "NO! And you can't make me!" There's a difference between a mean-spirited kid snapping rules in half and posing direct challenges to authority, and a rambunctious or energetic one bending the rules a little.
If you just aren't sure whether this kid is a bad influence, Goldfine strongly advises talking to the other child's parents. Hold off on judging their disciplinary techniques and, instead, fill them in on the kinds of things the kids do when they're at your house. Most likely, they'll reciprocate, which will give you another perspective. If not, you'll get a sense of how involved the parents are. Assume that the parents are as well-meaning as you are and make an effort to build a relationship with them. Be sensitive to the fact that any discussion of either kids' behavior holds such dramatic potential that it was the subject of a Broadway play (the movie version of God of Carnage, with Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, comes out this fall).
Barring dangerous behavior, Goldfine thinks it's okay to let your (ostensibly good) kid pal around with the class clown or the goofy troublemaker. Worried about how they'll grow into those teen years together? "Just because they're hanging out now doesn't mean they'll be best friends forever," he says.
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