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Our home is a frequent hangout for my 17-year-old son, Gabe, and his many friends. Along with their lively presence comes a hallway cluttered with enormous sneakers, a bedroom floor zigzagged with sleeping bags, and a kitchen with a perpetually raided refrigerator. I don't mind the chaos because I like knowing where my son is. But lately I've been uneasy. Gabe's newest buddy, Kyle, is sullen, avoids eye contact, and I've caught him smoking cigarettes. Now I'm rethinking our open-door policy. I'd love to be the guardian at the gate, but wielding that power, I suspect, would have serious consequences. Even mentioning concerns about Kyle rankles Gabe. "We can always go somewhere else," he snaps.
Of course Gabe's right. At this stage I'm kidding myself if I think I can choose my son's friends. But does this mean I should stay completely out of the loop? Most adolescent specialists say no, that parents should stay engaged. "Continue to nurture a warm and open relationship with your kids and they'll be more likely to hang out with a group who has a positive influence," says Chris Knoester, assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University, in Columbus. Want to have your say and also preserve everyone's dignity? Take a look at what works.
Knowing Gabe has befriended a sketchy guy makes me afraid my son will fall completely under the friend's influence, make bad choices, and lose sight of his own goals. It's tough but I'm trying to keep my dread in perspective. "Hanging out with a rebellious or troubled kid isn't a guaranteed problem," says Lisa Boesky, PhD, author of When to Worry: How to Tell If Your Teen Needs Help and What to Do About It (Amacom). "It's only worrisome if your kid becomes the troubled teen. Although teens may flirt with brief lapses in judgment -- and who doesn't? -- they aren't going to automatically drop everything you've ever taught them."
Thanks to the Internet, music, movies, cell phones, and even video games, our kids are exposed to all different kinds of social scenes. Sharing is the way they like to operate, which means there's an open, easy flow to their friendships. I find this more than a little unnerving. When I was a teenager, I hung exclusively with kids who were just like me: hippies. "Today kids can weave through all different crowds, be it the jocks, emos, nerds, or Goths," explains Jim Taylor, PhD, coauthor of the Teen Trend Report, a study that interviewed more than 1,000 kids nationwide about their social lives. Kids now have dozens of friendships of all kinds and levels of intensity -- no need for parents to take all of them quite so seriously.
Although these reality checks help calm my nerves, I still want to be able to tell Gabe what is on my mind. But he has already let me know it's a sensitive subject. I'll have to take a deep breath and a tempered approach. "You can speak to your kids about their pals, but address the issue with a feather touch," says Linda R. Young, PhD, counseling psychologist at Seattle University. "When you make a big deal, it can create a power struggle. Adolescents are then twice as likely to rebel and may end up drawing even closer to the questionable buddy."
How to proceed? With world-class diplomacy. "Even the lightest, gentlest judgment about a friend can feel like an insult to your child," says Anita Gurian, PhD, executive editor of aboutourkids.org, a Web site of New York University's Child Study Center. In a sense the peer group becomes a teen's family, and any discussion parents initiate can flip into a case of love my friends, love me. Or conversely, insult my friends, insult me.
With this in mind, I decided to have a gentle conversation with Gabe during dinner one night. I forced myself to keep a neutral tone and facial expression. "Tell me what you know about this new guy, Kyle," I asked. "I'm curious."
"You've seen Kyle's mother," he said. "She works in the vitamin department at the food co-op." That was all he offered. But my tactical decision not to overstep a boundary had us talking, sort of.
Learning just a bit of down-to-earth information about Kyle, I was less intimidated by his downcast looks and pierced brow the next time he stopped by. I simply asked him not to smoke in or near our home. Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette. "Understood. Sorry about that," was his polite-enough answer.
In the weeks since, Kyle and I still haven't progressed to the warm give-and-take I have with Gabe's other friends, nor have I extended a dinner invitation. There's still a chilly wall between us, but I've learned to deal with any flashes of trepidation by continuing to think positively rather than assuming the worst. A University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, study of 1,500 teenagers found that adolescents are overwhelmingly less likely to pressure one another to do wrong than to support one another's efforts to do well. Plus, I know Gabe has a solid foundation, a strong center, and a history of using good judgment.
Ultimately, Gabe will choose his own friends, and he'll learn a lot from it, even from the mistakes. More important, I don't want to jeopardize our mother-son relationship, especially since he's spring-boarding to college soon. For now, even though Kyle would never make my A-list, when he comes over I always make eye contact, say hello, and ask him what's going on -- as I do with all of Gabe's welcomed friends. The door, I've decided, stays open.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 17, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.