Your mother was right—Who you hang out with influences what you do
I remember when I was growing up, the youngest of 11 children, my mother would tell me not to hang out with "those kids," the wrong crowd, the ones who would get me in trouble. And of course, I would protest, "No, they won’t. They are my friends." Then, inevitably, they did. Nothing too major, just enough that I knew my friends had a big influence on me.
It turns out that research shows my mother was right. When looking at the predictors of anti-social behavior, "negative peer association" is the most powerful one, making it a high-risk factor for the teens we work with in Multisystemic Therapy (MST).
Take the case of Ben, a 15-year-old referred to MST
Before coming into MST, Ben was released from boot camp for ongoing substance misuse and truancy. At the time of referral, his probation officer made it very clear that Ben needed to attend school, come home at curfew and stop using drugs, or he was going back to boot camp.
Ben was open and honest about not really caring if probation sent him back. In fact in his words, "That would be just fine with me." He explained that during his last stay, he met kids from all over who used drugs that he hadn’t tried and committed crimes he hadn’t even thought of. When he returned home, he kept in touch with them, and now these were the very "friends" he was hanging out and getting high with. To make matters worse, because they were from other communities, Ben had to travel farther to see his new buddies, which meant he did not come home at all some nights.
Tackling his peer group
As treatment began, it became very clear that for Ben to be successful, his parents would have to tackle his peer group. It was agreed that work was needed in the other systems that surrounded Ben. However, the peer system was the most critical.
At first, Ben’s parents were a little hesitant. After all, don’t young people have the right to choose with whom they hang out? And surely if they tried to limit his choice of peers and make Ben do something pro-social, wouldn’t Ben rebel even more?
I empathized with his parents. This would be tough. However, as I shared what we know from the research about how powerful peers are, for Ben to have a chance to get clean and attend school, we were going to need to do the hard work to help him out. I reminded them of when Ben was young and they were potty training him, it felt like it would take forever. Through their hard work, he passed that developmental milestone. It might not be the same thing, but shaping behaviors in teenagers is surprisingly similar to teaching children of all ages new behaviors. Armed with a firm understanding of what needed to be done, Ben’s parents were on board.
Incremental steps lead to improvement
It was important for Ben’s parents to see that the best way to tackle this big goal was to break it down into small steps. One small behavioral change at a time.
They started with developing a behavioral contract with Ben. The rule was he had to ask his parents for permission to leave home, had to tell his parents where he was going, who he was going to be with, what he was going to do and when he would return. If Ben’s parents approved of the details, he earned the privilege of going out. If they didn’t, Ben had to stay home. His parents made sure someone was there to supervise him, distracting him from being bored. His parents found that Ben enjoyed cooking, and soon this became a delicious activity they all enjoyed together. Even Ben’s younger siblings got involved.
Teens need to know their parents care about what they do
The next step was for his parents to share their desire for him to do something positive with his free time. They wanted him to join a pro-social activity. At first, this didn’t impress Ben at all. But they stayed persistent. He could pick anything he wanted to do—and was asked to commit to doing it for six weeks. If he liked the activity, he could continue with it. If not, he could try something else. Ben had once been a good basketball player, and his dad really wanted him to choose that. Ben had always wanted to play the guitar, he was really into music, so he thought that might be fun. In the end, it was agreed he would try both activities at the nearby recreation center. Then he could pick the one he liked most.
Ben’s parents found that he responded very well to rewards. They agreed to reward him if he stuck with both activities for the full six weeks. Ben wanted a pair of pants he had seen at his favorite store. For dad, this was hard, as these pants didn’t appeal to him at all. They were what dad described as "loud and colorful." However, he saw that Ben really needed encouragement to leave his current peer group to try something new. It wasn’t going to be easy for Ben, so dad agreed.
Six weeks later
Ben was doing great, learning the guitar and finishing the basketball commitment. His latest urine screen came back clean, and he was attending school. Those questionable friends had dropped by the wayside, and Ben was making new ones. It was really fun to hear how dad and Ben had gone to the mall together to pick up the new pants and a guitar pick.
As difficult as it was for Ben’s parents, and other parents like them, to learn, it turns out that our mothers (and fathers) are right. We are influenced by those we hang out with. With the support of MST therapists, parents can make an impact on this powerful predictor of anti-social behaviors.