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For a parent, there’s only one thing worse than a child who has no friends, and that’s a child with bad friends.

Ones they emulate and imitate. The ones they admire and look up to, despite the glaring (to you) fact that they are dangerous role models. Children come across these ‘bad friends’ from as early as in their toddler years, and keep doing so into adulthood.

According to Dr Rosa Bredekamp, a counselling psychologist based in Durbanville, Cape Town, it’s important to draw a distinction between ‘bad friends’ and ‘bad behaviour’. “In dealing with so-called bad influences, it’s important for parents to be clear about what they see as bad behaviour, and to say how it differs from their own value system,” she says.

It certainly is cause for concern when your three year old picks up the antisocial behaviour of a fellow crèche-mate and morphs from a sweet, compliant angel into a hyperactive demon who’s unafraid to buck your authority, your well-spoken seven year old suddenly adopts the speech impediments of a new ally, or your ten year old suddenly refuses to do homework because a new and overly-bonded chum doesn’t have to.


This is nothing compared to when your previously thoughtful and communicative young teen will have nothing to do with anyone other than a child you can’t help but judge to be a really bad influence. You know the kind: wild and scarcely parented, glamorous in a rebellious way that (to you) screams neglect and maybe even abuse. And, you might even feel a little sorry for this child, because you can see that their behaviour is a product of their circumstances. You might even try to help this misplaced and confused adolescent. Or you might do what any number of parents do: try to stop the friendship in the interests of protecting your child.

Dr Bredekamp says this is ‘unfortunately’ the typical parental response and it usually doesn’t work. “Stopping children from having contact with bad characters will not solve the problem if the child has low self-esteem. You need to address the cause of the low self-esteem,” she says. And while there may be many reasons your child is choosing negative influences, “a combination of warmth, sensitivity and authority will most likely resolve the issue between parents and their child who is involved with another of bad character”.

But that’s easier said than done. As world-renowned educational expert and author Michele Borba notes in Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them, “Bad friends are every parent’s worst nightmare. We imagine only the worst: drugs, smoking, sex, trouble with the law.” But, Borba points out, parents should be circumspect. Simply being different is not a fire-able offence.

“It’s okay to have friends who are different from your child. Exposing our children to diversity helps them to broaden their horizons. It assists them to learn new skills and get along with others,” says Borba.

Read more about how to help your child grow and keep good friendships here.

Opportunities for growth

So, one of the positive things parents can do is to view the behaviour of the ‘problem friend’ and not the entire personality. “Children who are disrespectful of others, violent, addicted to or abusing drugs, violating the laws and norms of society, come to mind,” says Bredekamp.

Borba advises, too, that parents should resist the urge to place the blame squarely on the problematic friend. “Remember, your child is the one who chose them. So the real question is, what’s going on? Why is your child inclined to hang out with this particular companion? The answer to that question is often a huge parent eye-opener and will also help you figure out your next move. Direct your concerns to where they really count: how your child acts instead of how the other children behave.”

And herein lies the rub: bad friends can’t erase all the values you’ve taught your children, although they definitely may influence their behaviour. Some experts even say that bad friends can provide opportunities for good growth.

Bredekamp agrees that being exposed to bad behaviour in their friends may be a great opportunity for your children to embark on important self-evaluation and growth.

“Most important, though, is for parents to understand that even when their child has reached the years of adolescence – a stage of life when peers play an important role in children’s lives – children will always adhere to their parents’ instructions and rules if the parents have lead by example and have set the trend of what is right and what is wrong,” she concludes. “Providing your child with the right moral values and ethics from a very early age is the best protection parents can give their children against a seemingly decadent society where everything and anything goes. Having firm boundaries and providing consistent discipline, with the necessary warmth and understanding as well as parental modelling, will pave the way to raising a well-adjusted, skilled adult.”

And most of all, keep your cool. If you don’t, you’ll probably drive the friendship underground, where it can cause far more damage.

What to do when you don’t approve

  • Don’t alienate the friend you don’t like: try to get to know them. Try to meet their parents. Learn their name.
  • Don’t say bad things about the friend to your child. She will see it as a personal attack and withdraw.
  • If the friend is a real problem, talk about their behaviour and their choices. Do not resort to personal attacks; it will only cement their bonds.
  • Keep communication open. Try to get your child to explain why this friend is so important.
  • Look beyond the friend’s appearance (which doesn’t reflect a teen’s personality or decision-making ability).
  • If the friend is really a problem, don’t stop your child from seeing them. Instead, encourage new activities for your child, where they will meet other children.
  • Understand that during teen years the peer group is stronger than your bond with your child. Laying down the law and expecting your child to sever ties is asking for distance between you and your child.
  • Make sure your child knows she is loved and valued at home. The worse home appears to be, the more attractive the friends become.

Laura Twiggs