When Mark stepped into our home, I felt intimidated. He was dressed in strange black clothes. He wore thick black eyeliner and wouldn't make eye contact with me. He was loud and bullied the other boys.
The other boys included my son and three non-Christian 15-year-olds who wanted to start a band. For some forgotten reason we were "babysitting" the church's drum kit in our den. So we let the boys practice at our house and have sleepovers on weekends. They made a lot of mess and noise, and sometimes we didn't get to sleep for hours! I often found a way to leave them at home with my husband while I sheltered in grocery stores, took long walks, and purchased earplugs.
But we let them keep coming. I figured that at least we knew where the boys were and what they were doing. We could try to model a relatively "healthy" family and help them feel loved and wanted by making chocolate chip cookies and pizzas.
But Mark bothered me. I was concerned about the way he manipulated the other boys, especially my shy and usually quiet son. I didn't like the way he tried to make everyone join in with his wild ideas.
The feeling is not mutual
Maybe you don't like some of your teenager's friends . . . or your child's friends . . . or your toddler's friends. But when you think about it, why should you like all of them? You don't always like your friends' children. And it's a bit much to expect that your children should like all of your friends, too.
We aren't going to like everyone. We and our children have different tastes in friends, different interests, different family backgrounds, different standards, and different ways of talking and doing things. We are at different places on our journey toward maturity and in our relationship with God.
My husband and I finally admitted and accepted that we didn't like our son's "interesting" collection of friends. But we tried to be patient so we didn't fuel any rebellion in his heart. We prayed. We discussed some of our concerns with him as carefully and creatively as we could.
It was hard. But within a few months our son had found a new friendship network, a group of teens who were almost the opposite of the noisy band set! Soon he had friends who liked to dress in classic clothes, had picnics and creative dinner parties, made unique presents for one another, and were working hard to go to the best universities!
What to do
Through this process we learned several important principles and practices.
1. Realize that children "try out" friends. Children of all ages like to "try out" new friends in the same way they try out a new hairstyle, fashion, or kind of pizza! Remembering that many friendships are short-lived can prevent you from overreacting. The only way your children will know whether someone will be a good friend is to try being their friend for a while.
2. Watch for unsafe behaviors. While parental love must be patient, it must also be protective. You need to be aware of any unsafe behaviors that your children's friends might be exploring. In those cases you need to find appropriate professional help to protect your children from unsafe sexual behavior, criminal activity, or substance abuse.
3. Build good relationships with your children and their friends. Instead of using the time they're together to do your own chores, find something fun to do with them, especially when the children are younger. The better the relationship you have with your children and their friends, the more likely you'll be able to have a positive influence on their friendship and behavior. It's also easier to manage friendships when they're meeting under your own roof and living by the rules that are important to you.
4. Be careful not to overreact to the friendships your children choose. If you reject your children's friends, they can feel that you're rejecting them, too. Or they may become secretive about their friendship and not be completely honest about what they're doing together. So let your children experience that you're always available to listen to their concerns and offer thoughtful, caring responses. Be open to discuss small things before they become too big or awkward for either of you to handle.
5. Do all you can to keep a good relationship with your children. The more secure and loved children feel, the less likely they'll be to choose inappropriate friends. And they'll also be more likely to talk to you about any concerns they have.
6. Discuss with your children what you should do if you're worried about one of their friendships. Perhaps you can
decide that if you're concerned about your child's friend, you will say, very simply, "I'm concerned about your friend Izak, because I'm worried that _____ might happen. I love you, and I don't want you to be hurt by your friendship with Izak. I may be worrying unnecessarily, but I'd rather talk about it so that we can work together to make sure you and Izak stay safe and happy."
One question I've asked my children is: "If you were my parent and I was your teenager, what would you most like about me being friends with Sarah [or whomever], and what would you find most worrisome about the friendship?" Even if they can't tell you the answer, it helps them to reflect on their friendship from a different angle.
7. Hang in there. Keep loving your child and praying about the situation. Especially pray for the friends you don't like. They may be struggling because some of their relational needs (for comfort, affection, encouragement, and acceptance) aren't being met within their own families. Or perhaps their parents are not sure how to use appropriate discipline. But God loves them anyway, and maybe you can help them to experience a little taste of His love through the way you, and your children, relate to them.
Karen Holford is a freelance writer and qualified family therapist. She works part-time alongside her husband in the Children's and Family Ministries Departments of the South England Conference. She has had fun getting to know her children's friends, who have enriched and challenged her life over the past 21 years. She is also wondering which of her children would like to write the article "When You Don't Like Your Parents' Friends."