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Your Kid's Friend Is a Jerk

I don’t really like one of my daughter’s friends. And I’m talking about a fourth grader, a 10-year-old. This isn’t a popular statement for a parent to make, I get it. I know some parents will gasp and judge, but I’m guessing just as many can relate.

This friend of my daughter’s whom I don’t like isn’t all that troublesome. She doesn’t name call, tease or exclude. She’s just annoying. She picks petty fights, disrespects personal space and knows how to push my daughter’s buttons, which she does—a lot.

All this upsets my daughter, who can end up in tears both at home and at school. So I would be happy if this friendship ended. I mean, should friendships in fourth grade be this challenging? Or, am I just looking for an easy way out? Is it time for my daughter to start learning how to navigate more difficult friendships?

I asked Jennifer Press, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, for some advice. Press works with a lot of teenagers—it’s her specialty. Plus, she has two kids of her own (a teen and a tween), so she has a lot of experience on this subject. Here’s what she had to say:

1. Don’t forbid the friendship. Parents may be tempted to advise their child to steer clear of a kid they (the parents) think is trouble. But Press says this is a bad idea. By doing this, parents are likely driving their child to hang out with that kid even more. “Part of their growth is to push your boundaries and check it out,” said Press.

And the message parents send to their kids, when they try to control their friendships, is not a good one. “It’s saying, ‘I don’t trust you to make good decisions, and I don’t trust your judgment, therefore you shouldn’t trust your judgment,’” said Press. “It messes with their sense of self.”

Down the road, this can lead to kids relying on other people’s ideas, rather than their own—and they’ll start blindly following their friends.

2. Draw the friend closer. Press uses this technique often in her own home. Her 13-year-old daughter once had a friend that Press described as “dark and depressed.” Press worried her own daughter would start to feel the same way. So whenever this girl invited over Press’ daughter, Press would reverse the invite. This way Press could check on the girls often. “When they’re in my house, I know what’s going on,” said Press.

And by having this girl around, Press learned her daughter actually didn’t feel good about the friendship, but she didn’t know how to extract herself. So Press helped her navigate that.

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3. Encourage other friendships. When kids are younger, it’s easy for parents to nudge their kids towards friendships they think are a good fit. But as kids get older, this doesn’t work. So when a child wants to hang out with a “difficult” friend, parents can suggest inviting other kids along.

Again, Press spoke about this from personal experience. When her daughter asked to hang out with the friend who was depressed, Press would suggest she invite other friends too. “Her other friends are spunky, and they like to do fun things,” said Press. “So as a group, I felt like they’d make good choices. I didn’t have to worry about what they were up to.”

4. Reach out to the parent. If a child is really having a tough time with a friendship, Press thinks it can be a good idea to reach out to the other parent. “Pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, our girls seem to be struggling with their friendship. Can we get together and figure out how to help them?’” said Press.

In Press’ experience, parents are usually receptive to these talks. But if the other parent gets defensive or dismissive, Press says to respect their opinion, but continue to ask for their help. “I might say, ‘I hear that you’d like the kids to work it out on their own, or I hear that you don’t think there’s a problem, but my child is struggling. I’m sure both children have a part of this dynamic, and I’d really love your help in assisting them in working it out,’” said Press.

But before this conversation ever happens, parents first need to talk with their child—it needs to be a decision made together. Press said the goal of all of this is to teach kids to use conversation and collaboration to work through tough situations.

5. Talk to your kids, talk to your kids, talk to your kids. Press said this is the most important piece of advice, but unfortunately one that many parents neglect. “Get curious about their life, get curious about who they are,” said Press. “Make space to collaborate.”

When parents do this, their child feels seen, heard and protected. And in return, parents will gain a clear sense of how their child thinks, and can therefore trust that they’re making good decisions. About friendships and everything else.

RELATED: Is My Son a Bully?

There’s one more thing Press hinted parents can do: a little self-reflection. So I asked myself some questions. Do I want to shield my daughter from difficult friendships, ones that she will likely learn from? (No, I don’t.) Do I feel a little shame or embarrassment that my daughter is friends with a girl whom most parents don’t like? (Yeah, probably.) Is this my daughter’s only friend, or does she have other, solid friendships? (She does have other great friends.)

Answering these questions, I realized: I need to separate my feelings from my daughter’s. I need to allow her to have her own experience with this friendship. And my role is to listen to her, and then, if needed, turn to Press’ advice for how I can help support her.

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