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9 Bad Influences on Your Child (or You)

Worried about the corrupting effects of certain companions? Find out which behaviors are contagious, and learn how to cope when your kids—or you—come up against them.

By Jennifer Bleyer
Kids on swingsBrian Rea

Your little boy’s best friend comes out with a sassy retort every time his mom says no. Your daughter’s pals are expanding their vocabularies... and not with SAT words. Your husband’s new golf buddy? He’s got a weekly racetrack habit. And your favorite neighbor keeps dropping by with a bottle of wine, insisting that the two of you polish it off.

Peer influence is remarkably powerful all through our lives. But it’s never more impactful than in childhood, when values have yet to take root and the self is still being formed, says Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behavior specialist and the author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents ($16, amazon.com). Age 14 is a critical point. Surprisingly, that’s when most kids start to resist peer influence, rather than simply following the leader, according to a 2007 study published in Developmental Psychology. That ability increases through age 18, but then it plateaus until at least age 30 (at which point the study ended). The takeaway: An easily influenced high school senior could be an easily influenced young adult.

For kids and teenagers, dealing with negative influences can have an upside. In the same way that fending off certain bacteria can boost the immune system, some exposure to naughtiness can strengthen a child’s character and bolster his or her ability to make smart choices. “If you want kids who are resilient, you can’t isolate them from social pathogens,” says Timothy Verduin, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. “Think about the long view, that you’re training them to handle less-than-ideal people and solve their own problems.” In fact, most children ultimately reject bad influences, realizing that they don’t want to be sent to detention or risk getting hurt. Unfortunately, some kids find rebelliousness alluring. Whether your child will be easily influenced is nearly impossible to predict, at least until the teen years.

Unruly Types: How to Deal

“With few exceptions, you shouldn’t forbid friendships with certain children,” says Braun. “You’ll spark a Romeo-and-Juliet effect,” meaning that you may increase the allure of the forbidden friend and, in older kids, drive a wedge between you and your child. So what should you do? Real Simple asked experts to analyze the archetypes and offer up strategies.

The Back Talker

When told to do his homework, he responds with a snide remark. (Teen back talkers might add expletives.)

Threat level: High. When kids hear others talking back to adults, they often test it out themselves, usually as a way of exploring their independence, says Braun. As for cursing? It spreads like wildfire.

Damage control: The moment you hear your kid use foul language or notice a rebellious attitude creeping in, subtly indicate that you know where he might have picked it up. (Just don’t state your assumption as fact, which will only breed resentment, says Braun.) Then express your disapproval and set a limit. A classic that works: “I don’t know what’s OK at Stephen’s house, but that isn’t OK at our house.”

The Shock Whisperer

She’s the third grade’s foremost expert on S-E-X.

Threat level: Medium. Children have always been fascinated by sex. Who doesn’t recall hearing a tantalizing tidbit about it in the halls of elementary school? But if your child’s friend is spouting facts about sexuality before you’ve gotten around to broaching the subject yourself, it’s time to intervene.

Damage control: First “find out what your child has heard, but not in an accusatory way,” suggests Braun. Be cool. You can say, “How did she explain that?” or “What do you know about that? I really want to hear what you know, because sometimes kids don't tell each other the whole story.” Once you've gathered the information, start to impart facts that you consider to be age-appropriate (say, where babies come from or when you think having sex for the first time is OK). If you’re really concerned about what the other child is exposing yours to, you may want to bring it up with her parents. When you do, try to express concern for both children, to avoid placing blame, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist and the coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids ($19, amazon.com). You might start the discussion with something like “I don't know if you realize this, but our girls had a conversation about...”

The Daredevil

The little stuntman barrels down the steepest slide headfirst. The teen version speeds (and maybe texts) while driving.

Threat level: High. In a study last year at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, children ages 6 to 12 watched videos of similarly aged kids performing dangerous maneuvers on playgrounds. When asked if they could see themselves taking comparable risks, the children who had seen other kids speak positively about their actions were more likely to say yes. And research confirms that teens are more likely to display risky behavior, like trying drugs or alcohol, when their friends have already taken the plunge.

Damage control: If your child is under 10, “talk with her about listening to that little voice deep inside, otherwise known as her conscience, that tells her to avoid danger,” says Braun. Intervention will be harder in the teen years, when your influence is waning and your kid’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs decision making, is still far from fully developed. Even so, says Braun, take every opportunity to remind your kid that she doesn’t have to do everything that her peers do. Frame your requests as gifts of trust and responsibility rather than as commands. For example: “When you get behind the wheel of a car, you have a choice about using your cell phone or not. I’m trusting that you won’t.”

 
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