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How to Raise Kids With Manners in An Uncivilized World

REALITY CHECK: A survey conducted by US News & World Report found nine out of ten Americans felt the breakdown of common courtesy has become a serious problem in this country. A huge seventy-eight percent of those polled said manners and good social graces have significantly eroded over the past ten years, and is a major contributor to the breakdown of our values in this country. What’s more, 93 percent of adults feel the major cause of rudeness is because parents are have failed to teach respect to their kids.

What a sad commentary!

Make no mistake: courtesy does enhance our kids’ chances of success! Using good manners will enhance your child’s reputation in all arenas—home, school, and the community. Scores of studies find that well-mannered children are more popular and do better in school. Notice how often they’re invited to others’ homes? Kids like to be around kids who are nice. Listen to teachers speak about them using such positive accolades. Courteous children also have an edge later in life: the business world clearly tells us their first interview choices are those applicants displaying good social graces. They also get more “second” job interviews, and usually even the job. You just can’t help but react positively to people who are polite and courteous. By prioritizing polite behaviors with our children, we can enhance their social competence and give them a big boost towards success.

Every child has an “off day” and forgets their manners, but here are signs from The Big Book of Parenting Solutions that indicate that your child may need a more serious “Manners Tune-up.”

Signs a Manners Tweak Is Needed

  • A typical response is an impolite tone (sarcastic or surly) delivered with disrespectful body language (rolling eyes, smirking, shrugging shoulders).
  • Impolite behaviors are now more frequent or becoming a habit.
  • Constant reminders are needed to reinforce manners that you thought you had  already taught
  • Discourtesy is causing friction in your everyday relationship and breaking down your family harmony.
  • Social experiences and peer interactions (birthday or slumber party invites, dinners, etc) are hindered because your child lacks certain social graces or doesn’t feel comfortable using them.
  • Discourtesy is ruining his reputation among friends, parents, teachers, relatives, and family.

Parenting Solutions to Enhance Social Graces

All three of my sons attended a wonderful cooperative nursery school led by an incredibly caring teacher, Jeanette Thompson. The very first impression I had of the school was how well-mannered the children were. And, through the years as I put in my “coop” hours, I understood why her students were so polite:  Mrs. Thompson never taught manners at a special time, instead she taught students manners all day long through her own example. Every sentence she ever uttered contained the word “please,” “thank you,” or “excuse me.” It was impossible for her students not to be polite. She used to always tell the moms, “Manners are caught, not taught.”

Was Mrs. Thompson ever right! I also learned an important secret from my children’s teacher: The first step to teaching kids good manners is to make sure you model them yourself. Amen!

Disrespect, poor character, and diminishing moral intelligence are increasing. Here are a few solutions to enhance good social graces in your children and give them that edge for a better life based on Mrs. Thompson’s strategies of raising a well-mannered child.

1. Stress Courtesy

Good manners are among the simplest skills to teach children because they are expressed in just a few very specific behaviors. We can instantly point out good or poor manners to our kids: “Wow, nice manners! Did you notice the smile on Grandma’s face when you thanked her for dinner?” or “Eating before waiting for the others to sit down wasn’t polite,” We can modify our children’s manners: “Next time, remember to say ‘Excuse Me’ when you walk in front of someone.” And we can always tune them up: “Before you ask for the dish, say “Please.”

2. Point Out the Value of Manners

Discuss with your children the value of good manners. You might say, “Using good manners helps you gain the respect of others. It’s also a great way to meet new friends. Polite people just make the world a kinder place.” Once kids understand the impact good manners have on others, they’re more likely to incorporate courtesy in their own behavior.

3. Teach A Manner A Week

When my children were young I taught them a jingle, “Hearts, like doors, will open with ease, if you learn to use these keys.” We’d then print a manner a week on a large paper key and tape it on our kitchen door as a reminder. Every child in the neighborhood could recite not only our jingle, but name the manners that are the “keys to opening hearts.” It helped me recognize “catching new manners” doesn’t happen overnight: it takes consistent effort to enhance them in our kids.

How about teaching a “Manner a Week?” Write the manner on an index card, post it on your refrigerator, and then hold a contest to see how many times family members hear another member use the word.

Here are a few to get you started:

“Please., Thank you., May I?, Excuse me, I’m sorry., Pardon me., I’m glad to meet you,, You go first.,May I introduce….? Please pass…, ”

Just remember that the best way for kids to learn a new skill is through seeing the skill and then practicing it. So do the manner with your child — or as a family, and then provide fun ways to practice, practice, practice until the manner becomes a habit!

4. Correct Impoliteness Immediately

Use the 3 Bs of Discipline: When your child uses an impolite comment, immediately correct the behavior by using the three “Bs” of discipline: “Be Brief, Be Private so no one but you and your child is aware you’re correcting your child, and Be Specific.”

“Starting your dinner without waiting first for Grandma to sit down, was impolite. Being polite means always respecting older people.”

Waiting for the right time when only your child can hear your correction, preserves dignity but still lets a child know behavior is unacceptable.

5. Acknowledge Politeness ASAP

Please also remember to point out the moment your child uses those manners and let him know you appreciate his efforts. The quickest way to shape behavior is by pointing out the moment a child does the action the right way.

“Thank you for using your polite voice! Did you notice the big smile on Grandma’s face?”

“You waited for everyone to sit at the table before you started to eat. So polite! Thank you!”

6. Practice Manners

A friend of mine who really wanted to make sure her children “caught good manners” started a unique family tradition: Once a month, she asks her children to help her plan a party. The children plan the menu, set their table–with only their “company dishes”–arrange a centerpiece of hand-picked flowers, and then sit in their “Sunday best.”

The party is just for their family, and it’s the time my friend helps her children practice table manners such as “please pass,” “thank you,” “May I be excused?” (as well keeping your napkin on your lap, chewing with your mouth closed, waiting for others to speak, and learning which fork to use with each course).

Yes, it takes a lot of work, but she swears it’s worth it, especially when so many people comment on how well-behaved her children are.

7. Identify the Underlying Cause of Your Child’s Incivility

If your child has a more serious case of rudeness, then it’s time to dig deeper and discover the reason. Here are the most common reasons kids backslide in the manners department (and if you notice any of these issues in your home it’s time to roll up those sleeves and do some serious manner teaching) Manners not modeled or prioritized at home; Impolite peers or adults are being imitated; Music, movies, or TV that flaunt rudeness are having a bad influence; You’re allowing her to get away with it; Fatigue, stress or illness;Testing the limits; Never taught particular etiquette skills. What’s your best guess? Fix it!

Good manners do not develop naturally but instead are the result of considerable effort, patience, and diligent training. There’s no way around it. So keep encouraging your child’s efforts and teaching new manner skills until you get the results you hope for.

And don’t settle for less. Please! It’s our best hope for a civilized, well-mannered world!


Dr Borba’s new book The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries, is one of the most comprehensive parenting book for kids 3 to 13. This down-to-earth guide offers advice for dealing with children’s difficult behavior and hot button issues including biting, tantrums, cheating, bad friends, inappropriate clothing, sex, drugs, peer pressure and much more. Each of the 101 challenging parenting issues includes specific step-by-step solutions and practical advice that is age appropriate based on the latest research. The Big Book of Parenting Solutions is available at

Why Social Skills Matter to Kid’s Academics

Do you remember learning to read in school? I vividly remember the nervousness I felt when the teacher asked me to read aloud for the whole class. I was a pretty good student, but even I felt put on the spot in these moments.

Now imagine that you are a student who is struggling to read. You might mispronounce words or not know how to even start reading a new word. How would you feel in front of all your classmates?

New studies are showing in more detail how these two issues—literacy and social skills—might be even more linked that we previously thought.

A recent research study in Child Development examined the relationship between early literacy and social behavior. This report actually included two similar studies of early elementary-aged children (grades K-5) from low-income backgrounds. The students were assessed on literacy skills, aggressive behavior, and pro-social behavior (i.e., helping others) (as reported by teachers). The studies showed that:

  • children with lower literacy in 1st and 3rd grades were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior two years later (but the reverse was not found)
  • the relationship between lower literacy and aggressive behavior strengthened over time (between 3rd and 5th grade)
  • children who showed more pro-social behavior in 1st grade were more likely to have higher rates of literacy two years later

These findings make perfect sense when you consider the social dynamic of early elementary school. Children who struggle to read may be teased by peers. Without guidance in social and emotional skills, this could lead to aggressive behavior in the form of retaliation. If these struggling students do not receive tutoring or emotional support to cope with teasing, this aggressive behavior may continue year after year.

These studies dovetail nicely with several other recent reports showing the link between academic development children’s social skills. One study showed that academically struggling students who participated in a social and emotional skills training program actually significantly improved their academic skills.

Why is this the case? Simply put, different aspects of children’s brains don’t work in isolation. If a child is emotionally distressed because of teasing or other social issues, they cannot focus well on academic subjects. Research proves this out as well. One study of German kindergartners showed that those who had better emotional knowledge (e.g., identifying emotions, reading feelings, etc.), had fewer attention problems in school. The researchers suggest this is because once kids understand the emotions of others, it becomes more routine and this frees up their brain to focus on other tasks.

Overall, we see from these studies that a strict focus on academics alone is not the path forward for our kids. Kids, much like adults, do not function in mental isolation. Their emotional and cognitive worlds are tied up together and can either compliment or compete with one another. As parents, we can encourage schools to focus on the whole child for better overall outcomes for all kids.

8 Tips to Help Overcome Your Child’s Behaviour Problems

There are lots of possible reasons for difficult behaviour in toddlers and young children. Often it’s just because they’re tired, hungry, overexcited, frustrated or bored.

How to handle difficult behaviour

If problem behaviour is causing you or your child distress, or upsetting the rest of the family, it’s important to deal with it.

1. Do what feels right

What you do has to be right for your child, yourself and the family. If you do something you don’t believe in or that you don’t feel is right, it probably won’t work. Children notice when you don’t mean what you’re saying.

2. Don’t give up

Once you’ve decided to do something, continue to do it. Solutions take time to work. Get support from your partner, a friend, another parent or your health visitor. It’s good to have someone to talk to about what you’re doing.

3. Be consistent

Children need consistency. If you react to your child’s behaviour in one way one day and a different way the next, it’s confusing for them. It’s also important that everyone close to your child deals with their behaviour in the same way.

4. Try not to overreact

This can be difficult. When your child does something annoying time after time, your anger and frustration can build up.

It’s impossible not to show your irritation sometimes, but try to stay calm. Move on to other things you can both enjoy or feel good about as soon as possible.

Find other ways to cope with your frustration, like talking to other parents.

5. Talk to your child

Children don’t have to be able to talk to understand. It can help if they understand why you want them to do something. For example, explain why you want them to hold your hand while crossing the road.

Once your child can talk, encourage them to explain why they’re angry or upset. This will help them feel less frustrated.

6. Be positive about the good things

When a child’s behaviour is difficult, the things they do well can be overlooked. Tell your child when you’re pleased about something they’ve done. You can let your child know when you’re pleased by giving them attention, a hug or a smile.

7. Offer rewards

You can help your child by rewarding them for behaving well. For example, praise them or give them their favourite food for tea.

If your child behaves well, tell them how pleased you are. Be specific. Say something like, “Well done for putting your toys back in the box when I asked you to.”

Don’t give your child a reward before they’ve done what they were asked to do. That’s a bribe, not a reward.

8. Avoid smacking

Smacking may stop a child doing what they’re doing at that moment, but it doesn’t have a lasting positive effect.

Children learn by example so, if you hit your child, you’re telling them that hitting is okay. Children who are treated aggressively by their parents are more likely to be aggressive themselves. It’s better to set a good example instead.

Things that can affect your child’s behaviour

  • Life changes – any change in a child’s life can be difficult for them. This could be the birth of a new baby, moving house, a change of childminder, starting playgroup or something much smaller.
  • You’re having a difficult time – children are quick to notice if you’re feeling upset or there are problems in the family. They may behave badly when you feel least able to cope. If you’re having problems don’t blame yourself, but don’t blame your child either if they react with difficult behaviour.
  • How you’ve handled difficult behaviour before – sometimes your child may react in a particular way because of how you’ve handled a problem in the past. For example, if you’ve given your child sweets to keep them quiet at the shops, they may expect sweets every time you go there.
  • Needing attention – your child might see a tantrum as a way of getting attention, even if it’s bad attention. They may wake up at night because they want a cuddle or some company. Try to give them more attention when they’re behaving well and less when they’re being difficult.

Extra help with difficult behaviour

Don’t feel you have to cope alone. If you’re struggling with your child’s behaviour:

  • talk to your health visitor (*child-care nurse or midwife) – they will be happy to support you and suggest some new strategies to try
  • visit the Family Lives website for parenting advice and support, or (within the U.K.), phone their free parents’ helpline on 0808 800 2222
  • download the NSPCC’s guide to positive parenting or (within the U.K.), call their free helpline on 0808 800 5000

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.

Study: Does Screen Time Really Make Kids Naughty?

kids-TV-and-naughty-behavior“Watching TV for three hours a day will not harm your children”, The Independent reports. However, The Daily Express contradicts this, saying “Too much television turns children into monsters”. In this case, The Independent is closer to the truth.

It has long been said that too much TV or video games could be bad for children. The study reported in the news set out to discover whether there is any truth in this belief.

It was a large UK study, tracking children aged from five to seven years of age, to see what – if any – effect TV viewing and video game playing had on their behaviour, attention span, emotions and peer relationships.

  • Researchers found that regularly watching three hours a day was linked to a tiny increase in ‘conduct problems’ (essentially ‘being naughty’) after adjusting for many factors. This was just one of many outcomes the researchers examined. There was no evidence that TV viewing affected other issues, including hyperactivity, emotions and peer relationships.
  • Interestingly, there was also no association between time spent playing video games and any emotional or behavioural problems.

Unfortunately, this research can’t conclusively tell us if there’s a link between watching TV and psychological and behavioural problems. From these limited results, it seems that any such link is likely to be small. Other influences are very likely to play a more significant role in children’s developing emotions and behaviour.

How much TV should my child watch?

Unlike some other countries, including the US, there is no official UK recommendation on how much TV a child should watch. (Editor’s Note: click here for US screen time guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics)

A common sense approach suggests ‘everything in moderation’. Many programmes aimed at children are now designed to be stimulating or educational, so you may want to think about what programmes your kids watch, as well as how much. However, other activities such as regular exercise, playing with others, and reading are also important to their development.

Read more about exercise guidelines for children and play ideas and reading tips for children.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the Medical Research Council/SCO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow. It was funded by the UK Medical Research Council.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Archives of Disease in Childhood. This article was open-access, meaning that it is available free online.

The media reported this story from two opposing angles, with headlines either suggesting that watching TV does not harm children (The Independent, and BBC News), or concentrating on the small increase in conduct problems and suggesting that TV watching is linked to behavioural problems or that children are naughtier (The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail).

While a case could be made that the Telegraph and Mail’s headlines are accurate at face value – there was a very small increase in naughty behaviour – the tone of their headlines are not really a fair reflection of the findings of the study. However, the Daily Express claim that TV turns ‘kids into monsters’ is totally inaccurate.

What kind of research was this?

This was a cohort study. It aimed to determine whether there was a link between the amount of time spent watching TV and playing computer games at five years of age, and changes in psychosocial adjustment at seven years of age.

Cohort studies are the ideal study design for this type of research, although they cannot show causation. For example, in this study we cannot be sure that TV watching causes the increase in conduct problem score, as it could be that other factors, called confounders, are responsible for the link.

What did the research involve?

Mothers of 11,014 children in the UK Millennium Cohort study (a study of a sample of children born between September 2000 and January 2002) were asked questions about their children’s behaviour.

They were asked the typical time during term-time spent watching television and playing electronic games when children were five years of age. This was categorised into:

  • None
  • Less than one hour per day
  • Between one and less than three hours
  • Three hours to less than five hours
  • Between five hours and less than seven hours
  • Seven hours or more per day

Using the ‘Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire’, when children were five and seven years of age, researchers assessed:

  • Conduct problems
  • Emotional symptoms
  • Peer relationship problems
  • Hyperactivity/inattention
  • Prosocial behaviour (helpful behaviour)

The researchers collected information on maternal characteristics, family characteristics and family functioning (potential confounding factors), including:

  • Mother’s ethnicity, education, employment, and physical and mental health
  • Family’s household income
  • Family composition
  • Warmth and conflict in the mother-child relationship at three years of age – as assessed by interview
  • Frequency of parent-child joint activities at five years of age
  • “Household chaos” – a psychological term used to describe how chaotic or not daily life in the house tends to be in terms of issues such as sticking to set routines, household noise and how crowded the house is

The researchers also collected information on the child’s characteristics at five years of age, including:

  • Cognitive development (assessed by the researchers)
  • Whether they had a long-term illness or disability (reported by the mother)
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • The amount of physical activity they performed
  • Negative attitudes at school

The researchers then looked to see if there was an association between time spent watching television and playing electronic games and psychosocial problems, after adjusting for maternal characteristics, family characteristics and functioning, and child characteristics.

What were the basic results?

Almost two-thirds of children in this study watched between one hour and three hours of TV per day aged five years old, with 15% watching more than three hours of TV and very few children (<2%) watching no TV. The majority of children played computer games for less than one hour per day, with 23% of children playing for one hour or more.

Initially, the researchers found that exposure to either TV or games for three hours or more was associated with an increase in all problems, and three hours or more of TV with reduced prosocial behaviour. However, after maternal and family characteristics, child characteristics and family functioning were adjusted for, the researchers found that:

  • Watching TV for three hours or more per day at five years of age, compared to watching television for under an hour, predicted a 0.13 point increase (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.03 to 0.24) in conduct problems at seven years of age (after adjusting for the amount of time spent playing computer games).
  • No association between time spent watching TV and emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, hyperactivity/inattention and prosocial behaviour was found.
  • The amount of time spent playing electronic games was not associated with any emotional or behaviour problems.
  • When television watching and time spent playing electronic games were considered together, it was again found that three hours or more per day of screen time was associated with a 0.14 point increase (95% CI 0.05 to 0.24) in conduct problems compared to scores for those who watched less than an hour, but that screen time was not associated with emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, hyperactivity/inattention or prosocial behaviour.
  • There was no evidence that screen time had different effects on boys and girls.

The researchers report that the relationships remain the same when current (at age seven years) screen time was adjusted for.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that “TV but not electronic games predicted a small increase in conduct problems. Screen time did not predict other aspects of psychosocial adjustment.” The researchers go on to add that further work is required to establish the cause of these relationships.


This large UK cohort study has found that watching TV for three hours or more daily at five years predicted a small increase in conduct problems between the ages of five and seven years compared to watching TV for under an hour (0.13 point increase, on average). However, the time spent watching TV was not linked to hyperactivity/inattention, emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, or prosocial behaviour.

The time spent playing electronic games was not associated with any emotional or behavioural problems.

Strengths of this study include the fact that it was large and well designed. It also accounted for many of the potential “confounding” factors (although there may still be others that weren’t accounted for), and examined TV/video/DVD watching (considered passive activities) and playing computer games (active activities) separately, which many previous studies have failed to do.

However, this study does have a significant limitation in that it relied on the mother’s reporting of both watching TV or playing computer games, and the child’s emotional and behavioural problems.

Although increased television watching was associated with an increase conduct problem score, it is not known whether the minimal point increases in average score for this sample between the ages of five and seven would actually make any noticeable difference to an individual child’s overall functioning and behaviour.

The study also suggests that family characteristics and functioning, and child characteristics also play an important role in the development of emotional and behavioural problems and that it may not be down to TV viewing alone.

Adjusting for confounders such as family composition, mother-child relationship and child’s activity levels had a significant effect on the initial results. This arguably suggests that these types of factors may have a considerable influence on how a child develops, rather than TV watching.

Given the lack of significant associations found between TV viewing and game playing and child psychosocial problems, no conclusive answers can be drawn from this study alone.

Further work is required to examine the child and family characteristics which could be targeted to improve outcomes.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.


“Watching TV for three hours a day will not harm your children”, The Independent reports. However, The Daily Express contradicts this, saying “Too much television turns children into monsters”. In this case.

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Suffering Teen Behavior Issues? You’re Not Alone

teen behaviorDo you have a young teen who seems to be going off the rails? Like run-ins with the police, getting suspended from school, caught sneaking a beer from the fridge, disappearing overnight, failing an important class after years of mostly “A”s, taking a family car joy-riding without permission. These are all things that friends of mine – and I – are experiencing with our young teen boys right now. I won’t say which kid is guilty of which infraction, in order to protect the…. well, you get the idea.

It’s really hard to know what to do in these situations. There aren’t the same “what to expect when” bibles for teens like there are for babies and little kids. I definitely don’t have all the answers – but I will give some of the things my friends and I are learning on this journey.

First Things First

A friend of mine who is a child psychologist often tells me the following, which I repeat to myself regularly like a mantra: every kid is different and they don’t come with an owner’s manual.

The point of this comment is that we shouldn’t view the behavior issues our kids are having as our fault. We could still be – are – good parents, and our own personal experience of going through childhood and adolescence may not have prepared us for managing the unique child we ended up with.

It’s also important to remember that kids are not just smaller-sized adults. Both their bodies and their brains are still developing – and one of the last regions of the brain to fully develop is the one which oversees decision making and impulse control.

Checking for Underlying Issues

While teen rebellion and experimentation is a fact of life, a change in behavior could be a sign of a problem your child is dealing with. It’s important to try to talk with them to see if something has happened or is bothering them. Getting to the root cause is more effective than just focusing on the behavior issues.

But teen behavior problems could also be due to mental or physical health concerns such as depression, attention and impulse control issues, or other conditions. Getting some professional help can be useful – both for identifying underlying factors and helping your child and family cope. One of the steps they may take are to have teachers complete assessments of your teen’s behavior and temperament to provide additional insight into the situation.

Helping Your Child

Kids – including teens – have a hard time weighing the potential consequences of their actions, to a large part due to their continuing brain development. If you are dealing with normal teen behavior or rebellion, then it can help to concentrate on setting age appropriate rules with firm and consistent consequences. Now, this is one I struggle with…. As much as I try to set rules, my son constantly argues and negotiates – and I have a hard time identifying consequences that work. An article I read recently that I found helpful is at WebMD. They suggest writing out the key rules and agreeing the consequences with your teen(s) – and posting the list somewhere central in the house.

Another thing I’m trying is incentives rather than consequences – something I also picked up from a psychologist. We are having trouble with late assignments at school, so I asked my son what might be a motivating incentive for no “tardy” homework over the next 2-3 weeks. I thought he’d want money or a video game – but he said he’d like to have a family dinner out at a favorite restaurant. That was kind of nice to hear!

Teens are also very poor at judging risk. They often think “it won’t happen to me” when they participate in dangerous acts or risky social behaviors. One thing we’ve seen recently – and tried ourselves – is how to make risk and consequences seem more likely and feel more real.  For example, a friend of our son was recently suspended for breaking school rules. He didn’t think he would get caught….but someone got a picture of him in the act. We talked to our son about this – and how easy it was for someone to get a record of the wrongdoing. We pointed out how lucky he was that no one posted the photo online – which might have made his indiscretion last a lifetime.

In another example, a colleague at work was having problems with his son not balancing school work with his varsity sport. In what I consider to be a sneaky but brilliant stroke of genius, he told the teen he had to drop the sport and made him write an apology letter to his coach. Apparently the boy was beside himself that night – but in the morning, his father told him he could continue on the team if he made a stronger commitment to his academics. He also said to pin the note above the boy’s desk as an incentive for studying – to remind him of how he felt having to drop out of the team.

Helping Yourself

The last thing I would say is that parents also have to look after themselves. One of my friends at work had a really tough time with a wayward son and didn’t realize how much impact it was having on her and her husband until she pretty much had to take a leave from work due to the stress.

If you feel overwhelmed with the situation or find yourself losing your cool too often with your teen, yelling – or crying – and possibly having issues within your marriage as well, you might want to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. And getting time for yourself – for sports, hobbies, meditation, anything you enjoy – is critical. It’s tough helping our kids when we can’t operate from a position of strength with our own health.

What To Do If You’re Concerned About Your Kid’s Friends

Girl looking at her friendsBad friends. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: we imagine only the worse: drugs, smoking, sex, trouble with the law. But what should parents do if they notice that their daughter is hanging out more with a kid whose values don’t seem in sync with their own? Is there ever a time when you should forbid your son from being with a particular friend?

The bottom line on this one: It’s okay to have friends who are different from your child. After all, exposing our kids to diversity is a big part of helping to broaden their horizons, learn new skills and perspectives, and get along with others. The trick here is to figure out when the other kid’s values or lifestyle are really reckless, self-destructive or totally inappropriate. Consider this: could hanging around this kid damage your child’s character, reputation, or health? Keep in mind that our kids are rarely “made bad” by another kid, but the friends our kids choose to hang around with sure can increase the odds that he may—or may not—get into trouble.

Here are a few tips to help you handle these rougher waters of parenting.

  • Restate your standards. Be clear your child knows your family values and is aware of the consequence if he violates them. “No drugs, drinking, smoking.” “You always call to tell me where you are.” “You only go to homes where parents are there to supervise.” “You don’t leave one location and go to another without telling me.” A one time talk to your child isn’t going to cut it so plan to talk again and again.
  • Share your concerns. Instead of judging or criticizing your kid’s companion (which is guaranteed to end the conversation), describe the changes you see in your child. “I notice whenever you sit next to Kevin in class, I get a call from the teacher.” “You never swore before you starting hanging around that group.” If you’re not sure you understand what’s going on, ask questions. “You hid Ricky’s magazine when I came in your room. What exactly was it that you didn’t want me to see?”
  • Talk to the parent. Do try to talk to the other kid’s parent, and it’s best to do so as soon as your child befriends their child. Meeting personally would be ideal, but a phone call is usually more realistic. Try your best to be positive, friendly, and open minded. Exchange phone numbers. And if you haven’t taken time to do so with his other friends, make it a policy from now on.
  • Befriend your child’s friends. Get to them and let them know you are interested in their lives. You may see a different side. “Do you play any sports?” “How did you and Norma meet?”Are you in any of the same classes?” “Can you stay for dinner?”
  • Ask “What if..” A good way to assess your kid’s ability to handle peers who could be trouble is by posing “What if…” questions. You make up the problem scenario, but then listen to how your child responds. Her answers will be a springboard to talk about possible solutions she may face in bad company. “What if you go to a friend’s house and you there aren’t any parents there?” “What if you’re at a slumber party and your friends want to sneak out and (smoke, drink, meet boys, etc)?”
  • Get the facts. Talk to other parents, teachers, and adults whose opinions you value. Do they know the kid and share your concerns? Do their kids hang around with them? If not, why? What do they suggest?
  • Know where your kid is at all times. Make it clear that immediately after school (or any activity) you want to hear from him. If your child doesn’t have access to a cell phone or pager, give him a phone card and teach him how to use it or how to make collect phone calls. There should be no excuses.
  • Keep an open house. Stock your refrigerator with sodas, save those pizza coupons, and make your house “kid friendly” so your child’s friends want to come to your house. In fact, worry more if you kid doesn’t want to bring his friends over. Besides feeling more comfortable and knowing where your kid is, you’ll also be able to keep your eyes and ears open to see if your concerns are really grounded.
  • Foster new associations. The best way to limit time spent a potential bad friend is to find other social avenues to go down instead. Look for places she can make new friends such as Boys & Girls Club, scouts, clubs, music, sports. Arrange activities that your child really wants to do (the basketball team, guitar lessons, the art class).
  • Be prepared. Teach your child what to do any time he does not feel comfortable or thinks there could be trouble. Set up a code word that only you and your family know such as “Robin Hood,” “Trick or Treat,” “Jimmy called.” That way anytime you are talking to your child and his friends are listening, he can say the word and you’ll know you really want to come home. Also have a “parent support” group available in which you and another friend who knows your child well, agrees that anytime you’re not available your child will call her (and vice versa with their kid) to pick him up.
  • Watch for red flags. Are you seeing any changes in your child’s behavior that are big warning signs that things are becoming more serious? The key is to look for differences you’ve noticed in your child since she began hanging around with this companion: Grades slipping, tears, moodiness, red eyes (drugs), alcohol or smoke smell (or cologne to possibly cover up the smell), defiant or disrespectful attitude, hiding things or acting sneakily, sleeping too much, more accidents, a complete wardrobe change that is “not” your kid. Remember to direct your concerns to where it really counts: how your kid acts instead of how the other kids behave.
  • Forbid bad friend when serious issues emerge. If the companion clearly is a “bad influence” and is pushing your kid into experimenting with serious issues such as drugs, substance abuse, shoplifting, sex, smoking, it’s time to draw a halt to the relationship. This may be easier said than done, and you might need to consider the extreme: changing schools, a summer camp, a month at a relative’s, a boarding school, or even moving. In some cases it really may be the only option to prevent a potential tragedy.

Above all, keep the lines of communication open and your relationship warm and positive as your child. You want to convey the message loud and clear: “I love you.” “Remember, I’m always here for you.” Don’t let your dislike of your child’s friends hinder your relationship with your child.

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Dr Borba’s book The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries, is one of the most comprehensive parenting book for kids 3 to 13. This down-to-earth guide offers advice for dealing with children’s difficult behavior and hot button issues including biting, tantrums, cheating, bad friends, inappropriate clothing, sex, drugs, peer pressure and much more. Each of the 101 challenging parenting issues includes specific step-by-step solutions and practical advice that is age appropriate based on the latest research. The Big Book of Parenting Solutions is available at

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