Unhealthy Teen Friendships
If you’re the parent of a teenager, you should be fairly experienced at helping your child learn to navigate the sometimes petty, other times amusing, but mostly wonderful waters of friendship. But what is your role when a friendship takes an unhealthy turn? And how do you help your teen learn when to save — or end — a friendship?
The most important consideration is to recognize that this is your child’s friendship, and it really has nothing to do with you as a parent, according to Kate Paquin, a therapist, family coach and owner of Apex-based A Family Coach.
“Parents can’t make their issues the kid’s issues,” she says. There may be something happening that you think is mean or inappropriate, but your child may perceive it differently. If your child doesn’t seem to be affected by it, then “let it go,” Paquin advises.
That said, there are some challenging friendship situations you may encounter with your child over the course of his or her preteen and teenage years. Here’s how to identify them and know what your role should be.
As a parent, you’re likely able to detect potentially unhealthy friendships for your child because you have more wisdom and experience under your belt. In such cases, Paquin advises handling the situation much like you would have when your child was a toddler: by using redirection. Encourage your child to spend more time with other friends and to find other interests, all while helping to build your child’s confidence as much as possible.
The second type of situation that can be difficult for teens and those who love them is when a friendship becomes truly unhealthy. Susan Orenstein, licensed psychologist and founder of Orenstein Solutions in Cary, says unhealthy friendships occur when “people don’t protect each other, they throw each other under the bus. They might belittle each other a lot or gossip about each other. It feels like a ‘one up’ relationship, and they are really putting the other person down or taking advantage of the other person.”
Paquin says if you observe that your child is in a friendship like this — and seems willing to remain in it — ask your child about something specific you’ve noticed. For example, “Hey, I heard Suzy say how stupid you are several times in that conversation. What do you think about that?” If your child says, “Oh, she’s like that all the time; I just ignore her,” then Paquin assures parents, “that’s a confident kid and there’s no need to worry.”
If your child says it does bother him, but he doesn’t know what to do about it, then both experts agree that this is the perfect opportunity to talk your child about possible ways to handle the situation, none of which should include you becoming directly involved in it — or saying that your child can’t be friends with that person.
“It gives you an opportunity to kind of explore with them how they are handling it, and if there are other ways they want to handle it because they deserve respect,” Orenstein says. “If parents step in too early, it’s kind of taking away the kid’s chance of figuring things out on their own.” Both experts say it’s a good idea to suggest possible approaches your child might take, but ultimately your child has to decide to speak up for himself — or not.
“It gives the opportunity for the kids to say ‘cut that out,’ and to learn how to set limits and boundaries and to assert themselves,” Paquin says. “Or, if they don’t want to stand up for themselves, (they learn) to be able to make that choice and be able to understand the pros and cons of that.” Paquin agrees that it’s important for parents to teach these skills to a child because “this isn’t the last time they’re going to have that person or that type of person in their life.”
Accepting the Loss
Despite your child’s best efforts, there will likely be times when trying to address the situation appropriately won’t work.
“My middle school-aged daughter was in a close friendship with a girl who became extremely competitive with her. She wanted to be smarter, more athletic and prettier than my daughter,” says Caroline*, a mom in Holly Springs. “I encouraged her to speak up about how her friend’s behavior was making her feel, which she says she tried to do in a diplomatic way, but her friend’s competitive attitude continued. It got to the point where she dreaded being around this girl.”
Paquin points out that just because a friendship is competitive doesn’t mean it’s necessarily unhealthy, but if the child has tried to talk to her friend and nothing changes, it’s OK for a parent to help the child determine whether she wants to stay in that friendship.
“There are times where friendships run their course, and that’s okay,” Paquin says.
Breaking the News
If your child decides it’s time to break up with her friend, Orenstein advises leaving it up to her to decide whether she can tell the person. Your child might say, “I’m not going to be able to hang out with you as much anymore,” or simply start disengaging. Orenstein says either approach is perfectly acceptable, as long as it’s the child’s decision and not the parent’s.
Both Orenstein and Paquin agree that the only time a parent should directly get involved in a child’s friendship is if it becomes truly toxic. These are friendships that involve illegal activity and increase the chance that your child could get physically hurt, or that target your child in a very cruel, consistent and deliberate way.
Otherwise, our experts say to parents: Stay out of the breakup. You should, however, be available to talk and provide emotional support as your child works his way through the situation. The result? A well-adjusted teen who is able to decide for herself which friendships are worth keeping, and which ones are worth letting go.
*This name has been changed to protect the source’s identity.
Robyn Kinsey Mooring is a Durham-based writer and the mother of two boys.