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Q. My 14-year-old son overheard some guys he thought were his friends making jokes about him behind his back. How should he handle this?
A. When you're a boy this age the unspoken rule is that you should laugh about everything even if you're the target. So your son may feel that his only choices are to say nothing and keep the friends, tell them how he feels and get more ridicule, or stop hanging out but never tell them why. But there's a fourth way. He should approach the boy in the group with the most social control. Your son: "Dude, the guys are saying X about me. It's gotta stop." The other guy: "Shut up, we're just joking!" Your son: "Whatever. They listen to you. I want them to lay off." The problem may not go away, but your son will learn that he has the courage to face awkward situations head-on.
Q. What can I do to help my 13-year-old? She suddenly stopped talking to her best friend and won't say why.
A. This is one of those times when you can earn your child's trust by backing off. Tell her, "Look, I'm not going to lie. I'd really like to know what happened. But I realize you're getting older and I need to give you space. If you want to talk to me about it, I'm always available." Then walk away or switch the topic so you leave her with the feeling that it's up to her to make the first move. In my experience, when you recognize a teen's need for privacy, she becomes much more willing to share.
Q. My 15-year-old daughter has older friends who drive, and she wants to go out with them on the weekends. What do you think?
A. I wish we lived in a world where we would tell our kids "Don't drive with your friends," and they'd always abide by our rules. But I wouldn't be much of an advice columnist if I believed that. So what to do? Make your guidelines clear: "You can get a ride from your friends after practice but not to or from a party. If someone is driving and talking on her cell phone or changing songs on her iPod, tell her to stop talking or volunteer to look for the song. And I know you know this, but the second you get in the car, your seat belt is on."
Q. My grandson is almost 14 years old and has a best friend who doesn't let him have any other friends. Is there anything we can do?
A. When adults come to me with questions like this one, I need to know how they're getting their information. If your concerns are based on direct observation of the teen or he has approached you for advice, that's one thing. But if the info is from a secondhand source, go back to your grandson before you proceed. As the grandmother, you're in a unique position to give comfort and advice because you love him to death while being one step removed. First, ask him to list his friendship must-haves—the characteristics he values most, like trust, loyalty, and honesty. Now have him describe his friend and compare his experiences with his requirements. If they align, then he's in good shape. If they don't, he needs to think about why he's in a friendship that goes against his needs and he has to decide what he wants to do about it. Throughout, you are his guide, posing questions and helping him develop thoughtful answers. Keep in mind he may not end an unhealthy friendship immediately after a single conversation with you. But having ongoing interactions like this empowers kids to make healthy decisions.
Q. My 12-year-old son is really shy and just started a new school. A coworker's son goes there. Would it be okay if I invited him over?
A. Go ahead, but be careful not to go overboard trying to be the perfect parent or forcing your son to adopt a fake persona. And don't kiss up to the other kid by taking them to an arcade an hour away from home, either. Tell your child that you don't expect them to be best friends after this one visit, and that if it doesn't go well, he doesn't have to do it again. You don't want to put too much pressure on him. Instead, give him the opportunity and freedom to make friends on his terms.
Q. My daughter, a 17-year-old high-school senior, has a new best friend who has already received two speeding tickets and a citation for possessing alcohol. We want to tell our daughter she can't see this girl. But won't that make matters worse?
A. Probably. Instead, help her identify when this relationship is putting her in danger and teach her how to communicate boundaries in a way that keeps both girls' dignity intact. Start by telling her that you believe she has good judgment so there must be some redeeming qualities about this new friend—and you'd like to know what they are.
Then you can ask the tougher questions. Like, is your daughter becoming this girl's go-to designated driver? Does this girl hang out with people who make your daughter uneasy? What's your daughter's plan for exiting an uncomfortable situation? Does this girl have larger problems that would be better solved by involving a caring adult? What you want to show her is that there's a fine line between being part of a friend's support system (notice I said part of) and being her caretaker, a job she's not equipped for.
Q. My 15-year-old son is smart, athletic and good-looking but has no friends. He can be loud and obnoxious in his quest to get attention from peers, but he's a great guy when he's not being a cocky know-it-all. It's so painful seeing him text everyone and not get a response. How do I guide him through this?
A. As frustrating and heartbreaking as this is for a parent to watch, sometimes our kids can learn valuable lessons when they're rejected socially. If your son is being intolerable, his peers aren't going to want to be around him and that should be the best motivation to modify his behavior. However, if he struggles with reading people's body language or tone of voice, he may have no idea what he's doing to cause his peers to exclude him and could need social skills training. Or he may have ADHD, making impulsive actions harder for him to control. These issues, too, can be improved with the help of a specialist. I'd also suggest that he take some time away from the other kids and sign up for a class or activity he's always wanted to try. It will give him an opportunity to reinvent himself over the summer so he can start fresh at school in the fall.
Q. My daughter just started her first year of middle school. She's always been very confident—a natural leader—but I fear she's heading to the dark side. I've heard from other parents that she ignores her longtime friends at lunch to hang with the "in" crowd. She's changing, and I want to open the lines of communication. How should I confront her?
A. Naturally confident leaders sometimes like to flex their power in the wrong ways. It's up to you to teach her to act ethically. Take her somewhere you can talk privately while doing another activity, like walking around the block. Say, "I hear you're treating your old friends badly. Is that accurate?" When she demands to know who's talking about her, or launches into why everyone else is being oversensitive, respond this way: "You don't have to be friends with everyone, but that doesn't mean you have the right to be mean, which our family defines as ignoring others or making them feel unwelcome. And it doesn't matter whether you think your actions are wrong—if someone says she feels hurt by what you're doing, you need to respect that." Finally, because your daughter might be tempted to punish whoever she thinks got her in trouble, remind her that if any of her old friends' lives become more difficult due to the conversation the two of you are having, she'll be held accountable.
Q. My 14-year-old seems to act like a shrink for all her friends. While I appreciate her compassion and apparent leadership, I'm worried that she's too burdened. What can I do?
A. Charge for her services and put the proceeds into her college fund? Okay, seriously, your concern is well-placed. Your daughter's peers could be struggling with big problems, and it's inappropriate for her to carry the responsibility alone. Explain that you're proud that others rely on her advice and comfort, but she may need to seek some outside assistance. Begin by asking for a general description of the kids' difficulties (be clear that you're not asking for names). Then explain that if she's hearing about any major issues—bullying, depression, eating disorders, abuse of alcohol or drugs, any kind of family violence, for example—she must inform an adult ally. That can be you or another grown-up you both trust. She should also plan what she's going to say to the other teen, as in, "Hey, Jen, I think this is too big for us to deal with by ourselves, and I'm feeling we should take it to an adult. Who do you think is the best person? And if you want, I'll go with you." Remember, your goal is to help your daughter create boundaries so she can protect her own emotional health, now and in the future.
Q. My 13-year-old, Heather, has a new friend who pressured her to shoplift (she resisted). Obviously she can't go to the mall with this girl again, but should I tell the parents what happened? I'm afraid my daughter will be harassed at school if anyone finds out that she confided in me.
A. I get that you want to protect your child, but this is one of those times when parents have to come together to raise ethical children. If the incident stays secret, the other girl's parents can't hold her accountable. So tell them, in person or on the phone, saying something like, "This is really hard to talk about, but after our kids were out together last week, Heather told us your daughter tried to shoplift." If the girl's parents become defensive, or blame your daughter, calmly say, "I'm sorry you're upset but I really thought you'd want to know." Also inform them you've told Heather not to discuss the matter outside the family. It's unlikely the other girl will spill, but if kids do get in Heather's face, she should remind them that stealing lipgloss isn't worth getting a police record.
Q. My 12-year-old's friend is always bragging at my son's expense. Should I talk with the boy's mom?
A. If your son says it doesn't bother him, stay out of it. If he's annoyed, he can talk to the kid one-on-one, saying, "Hey, Brian, we're good friends, but I'm asking you to stop trying to outdo me." If your son decides to pull away from his buddy and the families are friends, then tell the other parents what the problem is, how your son tried to resolve it, and that you're available to talk. Resist the urge to one-up the bragger yourself or talk about him with others under the guise of information-sharing. It's vital to model for your child that problems should be dealt with directly, not by talking behind someone's back or playing the bragging game.
Have your own question? E-mail askrosalind@FamilyCircle.com and your answer may appear in the magazine.