Q: Our 14-year-old has taken up with a bunch of kids that we don’t exactly approve of. They have reputations as troublemakers and at least one has already been arrested for shoplifting. The irony is, they all come from families that are highly regarded in the community. We haven’t seen any dramatic change in our son’s behavior, but he has become more secretive and has told us he doesn’t want to play sports anymore. Naturally, we’re concerned about the potential bad influence. I want to tell him to find new friends; my husband wants to take a wait-and-see. What do you think we should do?
A: I agree with your husband.
To begin with, it’s completely normal for kids your son’s age to be flexing their independence — it’s all part of preparing for emancipation. In the process of establishing emotional distance from parents and family, a certain amount of “secretiveness” is expected, no matter the nature of the child’s peer group. That's just the way it is.
Boys are naturally inclined toward risk-taking. If they aren’t provided opportunities to take risks in relatively safe contexts — camping experiences, for example — they are more likely to gravitate toward peers and activities that are inappropriate or dangerous.
The young teen boy is in danger of making supremely impulsive decisions; his parents are in danger of reacting such that he becomes more secretive and perhaps rebellious. Your husband understands that, I’m sure, which is why he doesn’t want to make matters worse by “clamping down” without a good reason. In that regard, I need to point out that something as subjective as “We have a bad feeling about those kids” just doesn’t qualify.
I strongly encourage you to trust your husband’s judgement. Moms generally tend toward over-protection, even over-reaction in situations of this sort. Unless there’s more here than is reflected in your question, I feel confident in saying that your husband will know when and how to intervene if necessary.
In the meantime, this is an ideal time of year to enroll your son in some activities that would satisfy his need for risk while at the same time providing adequate supervision and guidance. Dad can certainly jump in there by planning summer father-son getaways that involve camping, fishing, dirt-biking, and things of that sort.
Your son is bound to expand his social sphere as he grows older. His present choice of running buddies may turn out to be nothing more than a fling. For now, just keep your eyes open and be ready to step in and establish controls if needed.
Visit family psychologist John Rosemond’s website at www.johnrosemond.com; readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org; due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.