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by    Anthony Kane, MD
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Teens and the Wrong Crowd

by Dr. Noel Swanson

Prevent your kids from hanging with the wrong crowd.

Here is the nightmare scenario: Your wonderful, butter- wouldn't-melt-in-his-mouth teenager meets some new kids in school. These kids are a bit different. They have a bit of an edge to them, a hint of excitement. So your little (well, maybe not so little these days) angel finds himself drawn to them.

At first there is nothing to be alarmed about. Just some kids that your boy enjoys meeting up with. But as he gets to know them more, they seem ever more exciting. They seem to have a confidence about them that enables them to ignore or openly defy the authority of teachers and other adults. They pull cool pranks, like skipping school to cruise a mall. And they all stick together and look out for each other.

Pretty soon your boy wants to be a part of them. He starts to dress like they do, talk (disrespectfully) like they do, and spends all his spare time with them. Before long he is smoking, trying drugs, and getting into petty crime - just for a laugh; "Oh, don't be so square Mom!" he says, when you try to challenge him.

Naturally, his schoolwork starts to fall apart. He misses assignments, and even the occasional classes. If he carries on like this he will fail school and be in trouble with the police.

Where did it all go wrong, and how do you prevent something like this happening?

The key to understanding all this is to recognize the unique fears and anxieties of the teen years.

They are at a crucial age. Breaking free from childhood, they are wanting to assert their independence, their freedom from reliance on adults. They want to prove themselves - to themselves, to their peers, to the opposite sex, and even to their parents.

Yet, at the same time they feel massively insecure. They have never done any of this before. They don't know if they can. And so they seek constant reassurance and validation of all they do. But since they are trying to separate from their parents, it is hard, at the same time, to seek and accept that reassurance from their parents.

And so they look to their peer group. Which is why it is so common for teens to want to be part of an "in-crowd". They want to feel they belong and are accepted - but can't accept that from their family unit. So they form their cliques and their gangs; they adopt a dress code for their own in-group, and mock and despise other, different, peer- groups.

They also seek excitement and adventure. Which is why the outlaws can seem so attractive. Here are kids who are so sure of themselves that they can break away from the control of the adult world and do things their own way. Who wouldn't want to be like that?

Against that, most kids have learnt something from their parents - they know right from wrong, they have some sense of the importance of education, and some plans or goals for their own future. They know, deep down, that being totally rebellious will do them more harm than good, however exciting it might be at the time. And, despite what they tell you, they do want to please their parents.

So most kids find a middle ground. They push their rebellion as far as they can - adopting outlandish dress, playing loud music, and idolizing pop-culture rebels - while, for the most part, they still follow the mainstream of getting a reasonable education.

If your kids are doing all that, good for them! Allow them their little rebellions.

But some get it wrong. For them, the need to fit in, to be liked, to belong are far more powerful than the desire to conform with the norms or to please their parents. Why? For the most part it is because they lack confidence and self-esteem. Their need for validation and affirmation far outweigh the risks of being rebellious. Common reasons for this include:
    1. Academic failure. If they are constantly getting it wrong at school, they will want to get it right somewhere else - even if that approval comes from a delinquent peer group.

    2. Overbearing parents. If you are constantly drilling it into your children that you expect this or that achievement from them - whether that be academics, sport, or social - and they feel they cannot live up to the expectations, then they will rebel and seek success elsewhere.

    3. Abuse. Children who have been abused, especially sexually, often have an extremely low opinion of themselves. They will latch on to anyone who seems to show them affection or makes them feel important in some way. So girls in this position may seek out macho boys who (appear to) have a lot of self-confidence, and will fight off anyone who would try to put down or steal "their girl". They gain a great feeling of importance at being picked and "owned" by such powerful boys.

    Also, many girls who have been sexually abused confuse sex with love. They desperately need love, but believe that it is found through sex - resulting in promiscuity and vulnerability for more abuse.

    4. Cultural norms. If your kids grow up in an area where fifty percent of the adults are on drugs, and the rest are petty criminals it would hardly be surprising if they found a similar path in life - however good your parenting might be. Being in the right neighborhood DOES make a difference.

    5. Bullying. If you can't beat them, join them. A child who is constantly picked on may seek safety and support in a fringe group, even if the price of their support is to be initiated into their anti-social group activities.
So how do you prevent your own teenagers going off the rails like this?

First, understand the phase of life they are going through. They are no longer children, so you cannot expect to keep bossing them around like you used to! They need help to find their own way in life.

Second, help them to find success in life. They need to be feeling good about themselves. Find what they are good at, and help them to become even better at it - be that sport, music, poetry, schoolwork, martial arts, whatever. That may involve trying many different activities before they find something that suits them well.

If they are struggling with schoolwork, help them. Either give them additional support so that they can overcome the difficulties, or cut down the expectations so they are not feeling under pressure all the time. Do NOT let schoolwork (and homework) dominate their lives. There has to be time for fun and play.

Live in the right neighborhood. It is not without good reason that middle-class parents seek out the right neighborhood and the right school before they buy a new home.

Live right yourself. Live an honest and upright lifestyle so that your children can be genuinely proud of you - even if they won't admit it.

Finally, value your kids. Believe in them. Affirm them. Do everything in your power to make them feel wanted, loved, and valued - and that DOESN'T mean buying them lots of toys. In fact, that can actually make them feel less valued. What counts is the time you spend with them, and the way you talk to them.


PS I often get asked if The GOOD CHILD Guide applies to teenagers as well as pre-teens. Yes it does. There are two aspects to the book: first of all I explain the ins- and-outs of why children do what they do, and how you can change that. These principles apply to anyone aged 2 to 102 (yes, you can even use them on your boss!)

Then I give some examples of how to apply these principles in real life. These examples are mostly aimed at kids from about 5 to 12, so you would have to adapt them somewhat to use with teenagers. But, since I explain to you not just the tactics, but the principles behind them, it is an easy matter to adapt them to your own specific family situation. Indeed, that is precisely my goal, and what makes my book different from the run-of-the-mill parenting book. Enjoy it!



"Are You Having Trouble with ADHD or ODD Child Behavior?"
Dr Noel Swanson believes strongly that any parent can easily become a better parent, and that being a better parent gives your children the very best start to life they can get. Why not check out his

Good Child Guide

Anthony Kane, MD

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