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Is your child's friend a handful? Take the issue up with the parents — gently.
By contributor
updated 10/25/2005 2:02:52 AM ET 2005-10-25T06:02:52

What should you do when a child is picking up bad habits from a playmate? How can a parent encourage a shy teen to come out of his shell? Growing Up Healthy answers your queries. Have a question about children's health and well-being? E-mail the author. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: My mother and I recently re-established a relationship after being estranged for almost two years. Along with this, my 5-year-old daughter has begun spending time with my 7-year-old little sister. Unfortunately, I see my daughter mimicking my sister’s attitudes and behaviors, many of which I find inappropriate. My sister is controlling and smarts off, and I find my daughter doing it also now. I don't want to hinder this relationship as they're very close, and restricting their time together could negatively affect my relationship with my mother. How can I keep family ties without having my sweet little girl turn into a brat?

A: The best way to handle this sticky situation is to first talk to your mother, says Laurie Miller Brotman, a psychologist at New York University's Child Study Center.

“The discussion shouldn’t be that you want your little sis to behave and that you expect your mom to do something about it. Rather, try to come to an agreement with your mother about which qualities you both want to encourage in the children and which qualities you want to discourage,” she says.

Be very clear about identifying the behaviors, in fact. For example, you obviously want to discourage talking back or hitting. But you may also want to discourage subtle behaviors such as being bossy or ignoring directions from adults.

Clarity is key here because there will be repercussions for the behaviors and, ideally, you want the repercussions to be consistent whether your mother or you is in charge, says Miller Brotman.

As far as repercussions, children at these ages usually respond well to simple time-outs. So when your mother or you witnesses offending behaviors, you may offer a warning to the child. If the behavior continues or it happens again, a 5-minute time-out is appropriate.

During time-out the child should be removed from the activity she’s doing (the girls should be separated if they’re both in time-out) and placed in a chair.

“It’s OK if the child is fidgeting and saying stuff to get out of the time-out chair,” says Miller Brotman. “Just ignore it. The idea is to not give the child any attention while in time-out.” Set a timer for 5 minutes and once it goes off allow the child to resume play.

Alternately, if you notice positive behavior — sharing, being patient, following directions — be sure to point it out and offer praise. You could even offer a small token of encouragement such as a sticker.

If your mother and you can be consistent on the parenting plan, the kids will get the message quickly that they’re expected to act certain ways.

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Of course, you don’t have to be related to implement such a plan. A group of playgroup parents, for instance, could also develop a similar strategy for handling misbehaviors.

Miller Brotman warns that there is, however, the risk that your mother won’t agree to a plan or won’t be able to implement it.

If this is the case, simply ask her to agree that when your little sister plays with your daughter, you’re in charge. Meaning, of course, that you’ll insist on decent behavior and be prepared to give time-outs to either girl. You may have to host all the playdates, but at least they’ll eventually become more civil and you won’t risk straining family ties.

Q: My son is going into eighth grade and he has very few friends. He is socially OK in school, but not out of school. He is scared of rejection. He is afraid to invite people over or out anywhere because he is afraid they will say no. He is not interested in any sports because he says he’s not good. What can I do to help him meet friends or get involved in some sort of non-competitive sport? I am worried about him because I am afraid that when he does get the courage to meet friends in high school that accept him they may be the wrong type of influences.

A: You’re right to worry, says Bernardo J. Carducci, a psychologist at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Ind., and founder of its Shyness Research Institute.

“If a kid doesn’t have friends," he says, "you need to be concerned about that.” Not because it says anything about the goodness or intelligence of your child but more because helping your boy develop stronger skills in this area should help him throughout his life.

Being able to make friends and connect with others is a building block for establishing other important relationships later, notes Carducci. “The basis of dating is friendship," he says. "The basis of intimacy is dating and the basis of long-term relationships is being able to establish intimacy.”

Carducci’s recommendation is to first consider your son’s strong points. Does he like animals? Does he have an interest in science or the outdoors?

Once you have a fix on his likes and strengths, scout out some volunteer opportunities. He could volunteer at an animal shelter or a hospital. If he likes the outdoors, he might find an opportunity to lead local hikes or nature walks.

“When you’re a volunteer, there’s very little rejection. Organizations want the volunteer and they welcome you with open arms,” says Carducci. “They’re not going to judge you and they’ll give you something well within your skill level.”

In a volunteer position your son will get a chance to practice social skills and might even use the position as a social springboard. He may make friends with the other volunteers or meet other people through his role with the organization. You can also encourage this by suggesting he go out to lunch with one of them or invite someone over.

As your son gets older, encourage part-time employment. Carducci says a job at a fast-food restaurant is perfect for shy kids because they’re around lots of people and the employer helps invent the conversation (i.e. Would you like fries with that?).

Steve Biddulph, author of “Raising Boys: Why Boys are Different —and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men,” says it’s also wise to take into consideration the unique path of boys’ development.

Biddulph, who is a family therapist in Australia, points out that around age 14 parents naturally take a back seat, and mentors — other adults who your child respects and who give time to him — become important.

“[Mentors] don't have the same emotional tension that parents have at this age,” Biddulph said in an e-mail interview. “[They] meet a need for adult inspiration that isn't just coming from mom and dad.”

So it is wise for any parent of an adolescent boy to look outside the family for good role models. Mentors, such as those found in the volunteer organization or through a part-time job, are essential in giving boys confidence in their masculinity and teaching them how to be men in the world.  (Of course, you have to make sure they’re the proper role models.)

Biddulph notes that if a dad is absent or uninterested in a boy’s earlier years (around ages 6 to 14) then mothers will find it hard to give a boy enough confidence and he can become rather sullen or shy. “He feels secure with mom but not confirmed in his masculinity, he might not ‘move out’ enough into the bigger world,” he says.

Likewise, if a family is not part of a wider circle of friends with good mentors available, boys in their mid to late teens risk drifting to a gang, looking to a peer group for their masculinity instead of a good adult role model. Biddulph says that understanding these stepping stones to manhood can help to see where a boy is at risk, and what steps can be taken to bring the right adult help into his life so he is supported well in becoming a fine young man.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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