I am very concerned about the group of friends that my 14-year-old son has chosen. He has changed a lot for the worse since they started hanging out. It's a whole "pack" that spends all their time together and they are all negative influences on each other. The mesivta is struggling to try and figure out how to deal with them. I am hopeful that you could suggest a way that we could separate him from them. All our requests, pleas, and threats have not been at all effective. What can we do to get him away from these boys before it’s too late?
Your concern is a very common one. Parents have probably always struggled with their children’s choice of friends, decisions, and sense of ideals. Although we want our kids to become independent and make proper decisions on their own, it can be very difficult for us to watch them make choices that we feel are not in their best interest.
As parents, we (hopefully) have the advantage of a sense of maturity, experience, and responsibility. When we watch our children following a negative path, it can be difficult to recall the feelings from our youth when we didn’t have the advantage of an adult perspective. When our children’s actions are problematic, we can clearly see the fault in their logic and the possible consequences of these actions. What we have much more trouble recalling is the immature, inexperienced, irresponsible, devil-may-care attitude that characterized many of us in our youth.
While we rack our brains trying to understand how a previously-responsible child can fail to see the problems inherent in his actions, we often don’t recognize the obvious—kids don’t think the way that adults do. In fact, adults learn to be responsible and mature by virtue of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and actions from childhood and adolescence. In order for a child to properly develop into a well-adjusted adult, he needs to make bad decisions and learn from them.
We have all made mistakes. The goal is to grow from our mistakes, not to become mired in them. A person who has never made a bad decision is one who has never attempted anything. Kids who attempt to assert their independence by acting inappropriately will often eventually recognize their errors, thereby becoming more innately mature. Our job as parents is to help guide our children in the right direction by modelling appropriate behavior, helping them to see the consequences of their actions (in an age-appropriate, maturity level specific manner), and supporting them in their quest for independently-based maturity.
Parents have always felt an instinctive need to protect their children from harm. However, the way in which we do this varies from child to child, and changes based on age. When a three-year-old runs into the street, there needs to be an immediate reaction that leads to the child’s understanding that this is unacceptable. As children grow older, however, our job becomes more complicated. We need to balance our protection instinct and the child’s need to grow into a mature, autonomous adult. While we still need to protect them (sometimes from themselves), we also need to allow them to grow into maturity in the way that we ourselves did.
Naturally, part of our job is also to recognize when a behavior has reached a point where the consequence can be dangerous or irreversible. In order to do this, we need to view the situation from as objective a standpoint as possible. If this were not your son in this situation, but that of a close friend, would your perspective change? Would it be easier for you to acknowledge his need to assert his independence, and to recognize that he will likely use his experiences to grow into a responsible adult? Or would you see a clear path to destruction? If you are not certain that you can view the situation from a neutral perspective, discussing it with a trusted, unrelated third party can help you to achieve a more objective understanding.
In instances where it is clear that action must be taken, involving the child in the process can be very beneficial, both to obtain some measure of cooperation and to help him maintain a sense of autonomy. The specific steps that need to be taken would obviously depend on the child and the circumstances. If your current situation does require intervention, perhaps meeting with school officials and the parents of the other kids can help you to form a more concerted plan. Regardless, the ability to view the situation from an unemotional perspective will likely make it easier to identify the proper response.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
Brooklyn, NY | Far Rockaway, NY
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317
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