Picture this. Your 14-year-old daughter, Mindy, excitedly tells you she's bringing a new friend home for dinner. "She's so pretty and talented, and goes to church regularly," she says. "I can't wait for you to meet her." When the new BFF walks in the door, the first thing you notice is that she has a nose ring, is exceptionally shapely for her age, and has a body tattoo like Miley Cyrus strategically below her left breast (Well, you actually don't notice the tattoo until she takes off her jacket and you see her bare midriff in winter.) You swallow and tell yourself that it's unfair to judge someone on first impressions alone.
Things go from bad to worse. The new friend calls you by your first name, opens your refrigerator to see what's in it, and is texting incessantly even when you're all seated at the dinner table. In fact, she seems sullen and shows no interest in making conversation with your daughter or anyone else in your family. You ask yourself: Why would Mindy choose her as a friend?
Whether it's the Bully, the Tease, the Goth, the Shoplifter, the User, or the Faux-Friend who gossips behind your child's back, most moms have had the unsettling experience of their tween or teen coming home with a "bad friend." Here are 5 basic tips for moms facing this dilemma:
1) Your response depends on the age of your child. When kids are young, you're able to pick and choose their friends. By the time your child is a tween or teen, they should have the opportunity to choose their own friends.
2) Resist the urge to jump in. Don't embarrass your teen or make him/her feel babied in front of a peer. Don't attempt to parent the "bad friend" - that's not your job. Wait until after the friend has left to have "the talk" and to discuss your feelings and impressions with your child.
3) Coach, don't tell. Start by finding out what your teen or tween likes about her friend. It will encourage her to talk and the answers may surprise you. If you remain unconvinced that the friendship is a healthy one, express your concerns openly but don't tell your teen what to do. If you attempt to micromanage their friendships, they'll only resent your interference and get defensive. Believe it or not, they do hear what you say, which will lead them to question their own decisions when they're ready.
4) Focus on raising strong, confident teens. Helping teens to discover their own strengths and to feel good about themselves enables them to make better choices. Encourage them to be exposed to different types of friends through a variety of experiences in school and through sports, hobbies, and other activities in your community.
5) Share your own friendship stories. Don't make the mistake of perpetuating the myths of popular culture: that friendships are perfect, that you only need one best friend, and that all friendships will or should last forever. Share anecdotes from your own experiences that point out the potential pitfalls of friendship--as well as the virtues.
Of course, if a "bad friend" is making illegal, immoral or destructive choices, parents need to keep a very close eye on the friendship. You also have the right (and responsibility) to establish "house rules" if it is your house. For example, you can remind your tween that you don't want people outside the family foraging in the refrigerator or kitchen cabinets on their own.
But more often than not, parental misgivings (particularly those based on appearances alone) turn out to be misplaced. The "bad friend" who we knew would one day be a felon matures into a Fulbright scholar. During the tween and teen years, young people are struggling to figure out who they are and who they want to be. It is to be expected that they will make some mistakes in choosing friends and, hopefully, they'll learn important life lessons about friendship along the way if parents are there to guide them.
Are you a parent who had the experience of welcoming a "bad friend" to your home? How did it go?
Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Her new book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, was recently published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at PsychologyToday.com.