Can I Choose Who My Child Spends Time With?'s Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D, says that if your parent instinct alarms you about your child's safety, it is appropriate to restrict play with other children. She explains just how to do that.

Illustration of child staring out windows
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

Raising Red Flags

My daughter and I live in a complex where there are two very toxic families. They get into loud, explicit fights, talk about adultery and drug use, and let their children out at all hours sometimes in just their underwear. My daughter is very social and obviously wants to play with their kids, but I worry for her safety as these adults are not the influences I want in her life. Is it alright to keep my daughter from other children whose parents I do not trust her to be around? 

—Raising Red Flags

Dear Red Flags,

Parenting questions are usually full of gray areas, but I see this one as black and white: Yes, it is advised to keep your daughter protected from these families.

Your instinct to protect your daughter's safety means your maternal antenna is working well. There are times our antennae start buzzing and we are not completely sure why, but we go ahead and take action because that's how we are wired to keep our offspring alive! In this case, you actually have several clear red flags—a high level of conflict, mature content that if you can hear I'm sure their own children can hear too, and their children being out "all hours," which signals these parents are not caring for their kids' needs well. It's no surprise that you are cautious to let your daughter spend time near these adults, even if their kids could be great people to be around. You can set clear rules, but there are ways to approach the situation so that it feels supportive rather than punitive.

What to Say to Your Daughter

The answer to your question may be clear, but how to implement the play restriction probably feels trickier. It's important to communicate you have concerns about the adults and how they are taking care of their children, but you want to avoid stigmatizing the children. To do this, it helps to separate your feelings about the parents from your feelings about their children, if these have become confused. Be clear with your daughter that you do not see the children themselves as bad influences. You can make positive comments along the lines of "Lucy has such a great sense of humor—she's always making people laugh!" Also, remember your behavior is even more important than your words, so treat them kindly in front of your daughter—even if you have to restrict your daughter from playing with them.

Socialization with Supervision

It is understandable and recommended you follow your own parenting instinct that these adults are not trustworthy supervisors, and that their children may subsequently expose your daughter to unsafe behaviors if you are not supervising. But there's the loophole—depending on your comfort level, you could allow your daughter to play with the neighbor children on the condition that you always have to be present, within earshot and within sight. This allows socialization with supervision, so you can watch and listen for any concerning comments or behaviors that you might want to discuss with your daughter later. If something does happen that threatens your daughter's safety, then you have even more reason to explain why you do not want her playing with them.

Consider Safety First

In my experience working with families who struggle to prioritize their children's basic needs above their own, what you are seeing and hearing is likely the tip of the iceberg. At the very least, these parents have poor judgment about what's appropriate and safe for children, and you would not trust your own child in their presence. Quite possibly, these warning signs visible to you are glimpses of more serious neglect behind closed doors that could be reportable to Child Protective Services.

From my child psychologist lens, my heart goes out to these children surrounded by high conflict and low monitoring, and to their parents for the parenting and resources they likely lack as well. After years of working in the field of child abuse and neglect, I know this combination is harmful to child development, and the child spirit. As you keep your daughter safe, you may consider taking steps to help the neighbor children too.

When to Escalate the Situation

As a psychologist, I am considered a mandated reporter, which means I have a legal obligation to report suspected child abuse or neglect. I do not have to provide "proof," I just need to report suspicions based on my observations. The child protection team documents my concerns and then decides whether to open an investigation. Even though I have had to make these calls many times over the years, they are never easy, and are always done with considerable deliberation.

As a regular citizen not in a mandated reporter role, you can still make a call to your local child protection agency, especially if you see signs of increasing red flags. This step shifts the responsibility from you to the professionals since it's not up to you if they take any next steps. In this case, the arguments about drugs and their children being out when they should be sleeping (if this is what "all hours" refers to), bring up concerns of physical neglect. You can find more information about reporting child maltreatment, including what constitutes abuse and neglect (this differs by state), at Child Welfare Information Gateway.

I know this may sound like a potentially invasive step to take, and the child protection system hasn’t always lived up to its name, but I have personally worked with families who ended up connected to vital services once child protection agencies became involved. Despite the fear of "taking your kids away," this rarely happens and only when a child's immediate safety is at risk. More commonly, an investigation may reveal areas of need for a family. Once services are in place, parents and children have more access to resources to help them thrive.

The Bottom Line

You have seen and heard enough from these families in your complex to justify concerns about what being around these families could also expose your daughter to, and it's potentially unsafe. As you prioritize your daughter's safety by setting rules around her playmates, keep an eye on their safety too. You may not be able to allow your daughter total freedom, but you can model how to think and care for others, even if you have to protect yourself while doing so.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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