When Your Tween Has a Toxic Friend, Forbidding the Friendship Can Make It More Alluring

·7 min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

At the transitional stage of life between childhood and the teenage years, friendships can turn “toxic” in the blink of an eye, as friends — some flush in hormones — become "frenemies."

A mom of a 12-year-old girl from California told me that she has reservations about her child’s new BFF. “My daughter says her friend ignores her at school,” she says, “but when they're together at their community basketball team practice, she acts like she’s her best buddy.”

Another mom of an 11-year-old boy from New York is concerned because, since her son isn’t focused on sports or playing Minecraft, the other boys — ostensibly his friends — are starting to tease him. “They say he should go home and play with dolls,” she says.

For this age group, the types of bad friends are numerous. But how can kids protect themselves from being sucked in to these relationships, and how involved should a parent get? Does getting involved even work, or will it make the friendship all the more alluring?

If your child is dealing with one of these common toxic friend scenarios, use this expert advice to help them cope.

Friend Type 1: “If You Have Nothing Nice to Say, Say It Anyway”

“Look at her shoes — they are so ugly,” one child whispers to a friend. “Don’t you think so?” Or, “He’s wearing a vest to school, did his mom dress him? What do you think?” Wanting to be in the know, many tweens will fall into the toxic trap of not always realizing that kids who say things behind other people’s backs, even if they were goaded into it, can later have it used against them.

How to deal: Emphasize that gossip is a yellow flag for someone who is probably not a good friend. “Your child may say, ‘It means they trust me,’ but it really means they think you're a safe person to speak to negatively about other people,” says therapist Sheryl Ziegler, Ph.D., the founder of Start with the Talk. “Encourage your child to say, ‘I don’t gossip,’ or ‘I don’t want to talk about that,’ then change the subject.” You can also talk about ways your child may be signaling to others that they’re receptive to that kind of talk. Do they laugh when a friend says something unkind about another person? Do they show it with other nonverbal actions? Maybe there's something your child can do to stop other kids from bringing gossip to them.

Friend Type #2: “If I Don’t Get My Way, I’ll Ruin Your Day”

Some friends want everything their way, including the spotlight all the time. For example, if your child got the lead in the play or was named captain of the team, this kind of kid would not take it well. For those friends, if they don’t get attention, they’ll act out by sulking. This can include acting critical or saying something diminishing in the wake of your child’s good news.

How to deal: Remind your child that they shouldn’t feel nervous or like they have to walk on eggshells around their friends. “Predictability makes for safe friendships,” Dr. Ziegler says. “So, if the friendship is steady, kind and consistent in affection and support, your child can manage the occasional bad vibe. It becomes a problem if they never know what will trigger their friend’s episode, or the sulker never acknowledges their bad behavior, acting like everything is fine the next moment.”

“When you talk to your child, offer your support,” says Robyn Silverman, Ph.D., a child and teen development specialist. “Ask, ‘Do you want me to listen, hug you or give you advice?’” Dr. Silverman adds that you might suggest your child speak to a friend in person (not via text or social media and never in front of others), and tell them what bothers them about their responses. “Tell your child to be prepared to share their feelings and then let it go, but watch if the friend does it again,” she says.

Friend Type #3: “Let’s Just Forget About It”

This kid pits other friends against yours, by using an “us vs them” scenario that includes a kernel of truth, like "We don’t wear pink anymore, but you do,” or, “We all like the same music and you don’t.” After drama ensues, this friend apologizes (in private), asks for forgiveness and says it won’t happen again. And cycle, rinse, repeat.

How to deal: Dr. Ziegler says this type of friend has already learned how to play with other kids’ affections. “They may feel out of control in their lives, so they’ve mastered the art of being likable and charming to better serve their ability to push someone away, but not too far so they keep coming back.” To deal with this, Dr. Ziegler suggests teaching your kids that when someone shows you who they really are, believe them. We all make mistakes, but your friend has to learn from them. When it happens over and over, it’s time to move on. “If they’re not learning and growing, then the friendship isn’t working,” she adds.

Friend Type #4: “It’s Me vs. Them — Your Choice”

This friend draws a line in the sand: “If you’re her friend, you can’t be mine,” or “I’ll be mad at you unless you go to my party instead of theirs.” For boys, our experts say, it’s often focused on an activity: We are the soccer team, and we stick together, and if you aren’t a part of it, you aren’t one of us.

How to deal: While you can’t pick your child’s friendships, you can foster different outlets for making connections. “The more they can open up that friendship portfolio, one particular friend group will have less influence,” Dr. Silverman says. “You can try to make sure they have lots of other options for finding friends through community theater, town-related activities or summer camp.”

Still, when one friend draws a line like that, call it out for what it is. “Tell your child that, when a friend says if you do this, I’ll do that, that is a controlling power move,” Dr. Ziegler says. “Even the closest friendship is not like the unconditional love of a parent, but when there are a lot of conditions placed on a friendship, it really is a red flag.” No one likes to feel like someone is trying to control or manipulate them, so kids will be more likely to try to extract themselves from that kind of situation if they see what’s going on.

Parental Involvement in Kid Friendships Can Backfire

Does a parent’s disapproval for a tween’s friend make the friendship more enticing? “Yes,” says Dr. Ziegler, especially during this time when they are trying to separate from you. They might share inside jokes, memories and experiences with toxic friends, and that has a hyper appeal. So if you tell your tween their friends are bad news, they can respond, “She just doesn’t understand me.”

That means that parents have to tread lightly when they don’t approve of the way a friendship is going. The best thing to do is have kids seek out healthy, supportive friendships from the start — and be able to recognize when something is amiss. “Ask your tween: What are the three top qualities you need in a friend?” Dr. Silverman says. If they say “trustworthy, fun and loyal,” have them reflect on whether their current friends are meeting those requirements. You can also ask open-ended questions, so you’re listening rather than lecturing. “How do you feel when you’re around this friend? What do you think about the way they talk to you? How do they treat your other friends? Who are you comfortable around — or not comfortable around — and why?”

When should a parent intervene and really lay a thumb on a scale and break up a friendship? Dr. Silverman says a parent must intervene “if someone is truly dangerous.” If they’re hurting your child’s health and well-being (vaping, watching porn, don’t have adult supervision), they have to go. “Tell your tween to blame it on you and your rules,” she says.

Until that point, a lighter touch probably works better. With your guidance, they’ll be better able to read the signs (and course correct) when something in their world is misaligned.

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