Running with the bad girls

What's the solution when teens hang out with the wrong kind of kids? Don't despair, says Dr. Ponton. Parents have far more influence than they realize.

By Dr. Lynn Ponton

Published October 11, 2002 7:08PM (EDT)

Dear Dr. Ponton,

My 13-year-old stepson (whose father and I share custody since a traumatic event with his mother) and my stepdaughter, age 11, have lots of friends in our neighborhood. Yet they always gravitate toward one particular 13-year-old girl who comes from a troubled household, wears skimpy clothes, high lace-up boots and odd-colored lipstick. She's never supervised, believes strongly in the occult (we are raising the kids as Christians, but respect and are interested in many other religions), claims to have been raped, has an older sister who is a Satanist, and believes herself to be a witch (Wiccan, but with absolutely no knowledge of the tenets of Wicca).

I confiscated a bullwhip of hers from my stepson, and recently discovered that he had threatened another child with a pocketknife the girl had given him. I'm sure you get the picture. We don't want to tell them that she's strictly off limits, but I worry that she's affecting my children's behavior and attitudes in a negative way. How tough should we get concerning troubled friends?

-- Lost

I've received many letters from parents distraught about the influence peers have with their teenage children. Folk wisdom attributes dangerous powers to adolescent friends, particularly when they congregate in groups, gangs and cliques.

In addition, during the late 1960s -- when the myth of the all-powerful teen culture reached its peak -- youth was characterized as part of a subculture that was strongly opposed to adults, even hostile. This concept of adolescents and adults as groups in conflict has been promoted by the media and by advertisers.

Many parents took the message to heart and gave up trying to communicate with their teenage children or attempt to balance the influence of a peer group. They believe that they can no longer understand the child at 13 whom they understood so well at 10. Instead of conceptualizing the adolescent experience as one in which very curious young people try a whole range of new ideas, behaviors, and friends, and bring these new ideas and people back to enrich the family, they believe that their child is joining a foreign group. The teens are lost to them, parents believe, and will no longer want to spend any time with them nor listen to their ideas.

Recently, Judith Rich Harris, a psychologist, provoked a new wave of concern when she concluded in her book, "The Nurture Assumption," that parents might as well give up trying to influence their children because they're powerless in the face of their children's peers.

In fact, teen behavior is influenced by both friends and parents. It's important to remember that our children imitate us. I think about that when I'm driving too quickly with my teenage daughters in the car. Studies indicate that teens are still very attuned to parental influence and values. Teenagers may rely on their friends regarding matters of music, entertainment and clothing, but they weigh their parents' opinions much more strongly in the areas of vocational choice and moral and social values.

The amount of time teens spend with their parents is key. Teenagers who spend less time with adults rely more heavily on peers. Some turn to peers because they lack a closeness with the adults in their lives. If parents believe that their child's friends are playing a negative role, they can first respond by spending more time with their child, provided they focus on something the teen will be interested in.

It's always crucial that parents find out about a teen's friends. It's part of their job. There are many ways to do this, but perhaps most important is listening to what their teenagers have to say about their friends, and asking questions.

Danger signals that should alert parents include children who keep their friendships secret -- or suddenly lose interest in friends altogether. A clear danger signal for this mother is her discovery that her stepson had threatened another child with a knife. This must be addressed immediately, and all parents involved in the situation need to be aware of what happened and involved in the plan.

This stepmom hints at one possible reason for the attraction between her children and the troubled girl- she alluded to a trauma with the biological mother after a custody battle. It is possible that her stepchildren identify with the teen from a troubled background, recognizing that they share something.

What to do about a friend who is practicing Wicca and presenting whips is tricky. On the surface, the 13-year-old girl sounds entertaining and may be providing the thrill that a Christian upbringing is not. Neither whips nor Wicca are necessarily bad.

I've worked with many teens seeking comfort or an explanation for inexplicable events who have developed a strong interest in Wicca. This is a nature-based religion founded on the concept that all living beings are imbued with a divine spirit, without the Judeo-Christian dichotomy of good vs. evil. Its basic tenet is: "If it harms none, do as you will."

It's normal and healthy for teens to explore different philosophies and religions. It's also important to note that many teens embrace a concept without understanding the subtleties involved. This is often the case for those who embrace witchcraft. This, in itself, is not inherently problematic. In fact, it can be a springboard for independent thinking. However, in some cases a teenager will severely distort a philosophy, with very negative results.

The whip gives me pause. It's an interesting gift at any age. However, there are several possible meanings. Teens today do give items associated with sexual power exchange (fur-covered handcuffs, bondage kits, suggestive clothing) as jokes or presents. Perhaps they are seen as coming-of-age gifts, perhaps they are indicative of the giver and the recipient's sexual relationship, perhaps they are little more than a mirroring of media and movie images.

This mother is remarkably observant about her stepchildren. If she were to tell them that their friend is off limits, it would probably backfire (as she seems well aware). With teens, parents need to choose carefully before they give an ultimatum.

In this case, the bullying episode with the knife and the traumatic event linked to the custody arrangement are important to address immediately. Family therapy with all parties involved might be very helpful. This problematic friend could be viewed as a gift of sorts -- a sign that there are issues that must be dealt with now.

Note: In my last column I discussed a girl who might be using vegetarianism as a cover for a restrictive eating disorder. I have received a deluge of letters regarding eating disorders. I want to reiterate my support for parents and teenagers struggling with anorexia or bulimia, and to urge them to seek professional help immediately.

Dr. Lynn Ponton

Dr. Lynn Ponton is a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. She is the mother of two teenagers and the author of "The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do" and "The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls."

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