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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

The Mean Girl (or Boy)

Master of the dark arts of exclusion and putting others down behind their backs.

Threat level: High. When a kid falls into the good graces of a queen bee or a pack leader, he often takes on at least some of that friend’s exclusivity, says psychologist Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., a coauthor of Teenage as a Second Language ($15, A 2007 study from the University of Western Ontario, in London, looked at children in grades five through eight who spent most of their time with kids considered to have “high group centrality” (a.k.a. popularity). Researchers found that these students were more likely to display “relational aggression” (acting manipulatively, spreading rumors) than were those in other crowds.

Damage control: Ask your child questions about the emotions that his friend provokes, suggests Greenberg. You might say, “How do you feel when he says bad things about Scottie?” or “What do you think is causing him to act like that?” Thinking through the answers to these questions should help reinforce your child's sense of empathy, empowering him to act for himself and stand up for kindness toward others.

The Tantrum Thrower

Like Veruca Salt, she wants the whole world, and she wants it now.

Threat level: Low. Children who throw tantrums morning, noon, and night tend to have naturally difficult temperaments, as well as parents or caregivers who reinforce their behavior by giving in to their demands. Without these two components in place, your child isn’t at risk of a total personality change. She could go through a phase of mimicking the behavior, says Verduin, but it's unlikely to stick.

Damage control: If your child starts to act out, hold your ground (“No, you may not have a candy bar”) and wait out the antics, even if your kid is causing a scene. And if the dramatic friend throws a fit while she’s at your house, don’t judge. Simply take your child out of the room until her buddy calms down, says Kennedy-Moore. Tell her, “Lily is very upset right now. Let’s give her a little bit of space.” This action puts you and your child on the same team, making her feel that you’re a united front.

The Sneak

If it’s against the rules, he does it and lies about it. This is the teen who steals gum from the deli and smuggles vodka into the school dance in a water bottle.

Threat level: Medium. “Kids at the adolescent transition are trying to define who they are, and they do it by showing that they’re not simply a clone of their parents,” says Mitchell Prinstein, Ph.D., the director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill. As hard as it can be for a parent to accept, experimenting and pushing the envelope is a natural part of the developmental process—one that most kids will go through regardless of whom they hang out with.

Damage control: Keeping the lines of communication open with your teen is always important, but it’s especially critical if he’s hanging around with this kind of kid. Using nonjudgmental words, encourage your child to talk about why he finds this friend appealing. Through this conversation, you may discover underlying issues (a difficult social scene, a dearth of self-esteem) that are driving your child toward him. If your child seems carefree about the relationship, consider the possibility that he’s leading the delinquency, and implement stricter rules about his comings and goings.


Is Your Kid the Bad Influence?

Here are three ways to take off the blinders and see for yourself.

1. Talk to teachers. They spend nearly as much time with your kid as you do, if not more. Ask them direct questions about your child’s behavior: Is she uncooperative? Does he influence others negatively? Make it clear that you want the truth.

2. Circle the wagons every night. Put the chores and the screens aside and spend focused time with your child every evening. (The dinner table is a great forum.) Ask him, “What’s new with your friends?” or “How is Alex doing?” This will clue you in to his social interactions, giving you an opportunity to decode what’s happening behind the scenes.

3. Observe peer-to-peer interactions. Invite other kids to your house, then stay within earshot. Does your daughter initiate the most ruthless gossip? Does your son start the potty talk? To gauge your kid’s influence on a larger group, keep an eye on him when you’re picking him up from a birthday party or chaperoning a field trip. You can learn a lot.

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