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Written by:  Tammy Holoman
Date: March 1, 2011

Tweens and teens are shaping their personalities and learning who they want to become. They're asserting themselves as individuals, and yearning to be trusted to make decisions and learn from mistakes. Sometimes it's difficult for the parents who have spent years protecting their children's to let that happen. Thanks to technology, kids today are also tethered to their friends (and even strangers) 24-7 via cell phones with text messaging, Facebook and other avenues that aren't easy for parents to monitor regularly. Let's face it: It's just not possible, nor practical, to screen all of your child's interactions in an effort to keep him from making mistakes.

Be tolerant and tactful

If your child has developed a friendship or other relationship that you consider unhealthy, ask yourself why you feel this way. Is it the friend's attitude or appearance? Has your child's behavior changed? Did you hear a rumor? Was there a troubling incident? Before you act, think about whether you may be judging too harshly. Unless you've seen "red flags" signaling potential alcohol or drug use, sexual activity, bullying or other trouble, you may be overreacting. If you've been patient and open-minded and still believe your child is headed down the wrong path, knowing how and when to intervene is crucial.

Tammy Finch, a licensed psychologist in Raleigh, advises parents in this situation to be self-aware, tolerant and tactful.

"Parents have to be careful to focus on not judging another child based on appearance or other superficial issues," she says. "Your child can be friends with someone who has different values than your family and be just fine. Many parents go into a hypercritical mode when what they should do is focus on the effect the relationship is having on their child. You shouldn't talk to your child about how the friend dresses or acts, but what you've noticed about your child's behavior after he's been with that friend. The line in the sand needs to be drawn at the child's safety, not your personal preference."

Let friendships run their course

Tricia Cesari of Winston-Salem, the mother of a 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, says she became concerned last year when her son and one of his classmates began spending time at her house while she was at work.

"They'd light candles in the house and burn things, and then they'd lie about it," Cesari says. "Or things would get broken in the house every week, and I'd never know how it happened."

Once at her daughter's birthday party, her son's friend got on the daughter's new bike without permission and rode down the street while the other kids were doing something as a group.

"A lot of little things like that bothered me," Cesari says. She decided to talk to her son about what was going on.

"I tried first to talk him out of [the friendship], which didn't work," she says. She later told her son that he was old enough to make his own decisions about friends, but that she still had the same rules and standards for him, despite how his friend behaved. She also set house rules about when the friend was allowed to visit. Over time, the boys' relationship subsided.

These friendships often run their course with little or no parental intervention. Resist your instinct to demand that your child cut ties with the friend in question. That rarely works, Finch says. In fact, it will likely have the opposite effect.

"If you put yourself in the position of trying to control everything, you're setting yourself up for a power struggle, and you're eventually going to lose," she says. "They can go be friends with whoever they want to be friends with, and you may never know."

Let kids learn from mistakes

Finch says it's important to keep in mind that tweens and teens learn from their mistakes. As long as they're not in harm's way, it should be part of growing up.

"They're getting ready to leave your house in a few years," she says, "and you want them to be able to practice freedom and independence, and be able to make mistakes while they've still got a safety net."

She also suggests getting to know your child's friends better.

"Invite that friend that you're most worried about into your home," Finch advises. "You might learn that friend isn't as scary or dangerous as you had assumed. If not, at least your child is seeing you be open to differences."

Consider the big picture

Kristie Roe, a licensed counselor in Charlotte, agrees that it's important for parents to look at the big picture when it comes to their children's relationships.

"Part of identity formation in adolescence is trying on different identities and types of friends, and seeing what works," Roe says.

She believes that a balanced life is necessary so tweens and teens don't become bogged down in unhealthy relationships.

"Step back and look at the landscape of your child's life," she says. "Is he or she engaged in a hobby or sport? Are they striving academically for success? If you've got a nice, balanced picture, where there are one or two friends you're worried about, step back. More often than not, that relationship will be short-lived. Try not to stay focused on the one friend, as long as there's diversity in the child's life."

But what if things are out of balance? At times, parents do need to intervene, and it may be helpful to get to know the friend's parents, Roe says.

"If they come from the same mind-set as you, that's a real plus, and you can work together to make sure the kids are doing OK and manage the relationship better," she says.

Communication is crucial

Communication with your child is essential, but choose your words carefully, Roe says. "Start a dialogue about what's happening," she said, "but don't speak negatively. If there's something the child is connecting with in that friend, they will feel like the parent is attacking them, too. Talk about the behaviors rather than the friend in question."

Choosing friends is a necessary part of adolescence, and you're not always going to understand or agree with the choices your child makes. Observation and communication are keys to knowing when he or she is developing healthy relationships versus when it's time to have a talk about behaviors and consequences.

"Stay calm, cool and collected, and watch from the sidelines," Finch says.

"You're going to be much more likely to know when to intervene and when to leave things alone."

Tammy Holoman is a Winston-Salem-based freelance writer.

Stay in Tune with Your Teens

The following tips can help you ward off trouble and know what's happening with your tween or teen:

- Be involved with your child's school and extracurricular activities.

- Know where your child is at all times, and check in when you're apart.

- Set boundaries, including house rules like curfews.

- Limit TV time and monitor Internet use whenever possible.

- Make family time a priority.

- Find supervised activities your child enjoys.

- Put the brakes on if you suspect your child may be engaging in risky behavior.

- Talk to other parents, and don't be afraid to seek professional help if you feel like you're losing your footing.


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