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How to Get Your Kid Out of a Toxic Friendship

Photograph by Getty Images/Blend Images

I’m witnessing my 10-year-old daughter’s friendships become more complicated. When there’s a tiff, it’s not as easily forgotten as it once was. There’s more drama. Girls are forming cliques. I’ve even heard stories about “mean girl” behavior.

While my daughter isn’t a “mean girl,” she’s friends with a girl who can be trouble. This girl latched on to my daughter a few years back (my daughter is on the shy side), and she hasn't let go. This girl is known to disrupt class, disrespect adults and pick on other kids (including my daughter). I wouldn’t call this girl’s behavior severe, and I often think she may outgrow it. But it still disturbs me, and I wonder: Do I need to be concerned about this girl, this friendship? The short answer is yes, according to psychotherapist and parenting author Mary Jo Rapini.

“Many times kids make great choices, but sometimes the friends that choose your child are not great choices, and for some unknown reason, your child cannot get away from these types of friends,” said Rapini. “These friends are what I refer to as ‘toxic friends.’”

According to Rapini, toxic kids seek out kids who are kind and compassionate, because they think they’re easy to manipulate. “It replicates abuse,” said Rapini. “It’s a form of bullying. Kids that get into these friendships are usually chosen.”

Signs a Friend Is Toxic

If parents aren’t watching closely, a toxic friend can be tough to spot. “The toxic friend may appear like the nice kid-next-door to you as a parent, “said Rapini.

So here are some signs that your child’s friend may be toxic:

- They treat parents and adults with disdain.

- The friend teases and belittles your child.

- They encourage your child to act badly at school.

- The friend wants to keep secrets all the time.

- They’re rude in public.

- They pick on people or have a bully attitude.

- The friend disrespects your family’s rules.

And if your child becomes obsessed or concerned about pleasing this friend—that’s a big red flag. “There is a good chance the power balance has shifted, and your child is being used,” said Rapini.

Getting Out of a Toxic Friendship

So what do you do if you’ve decided your kid’s friendship is “toxic”? Rapini says your child needs to “see the light”—they need to understand why this friendship is not a good one. To do that, talk to your kid about what a good friendship looks like, and then, while not attacking, explain why the friend’s behavior in not acceptable. “Be honest and firm with your observations,” said Rapini.

And kids need help ending a friendship – this is not something they can navigate alone. “Your child also needs to know they are supported by you as these types of friends often have power over your child,” said Rapini. So she suggests parents and kids create a plan together. Here are some ideas:

- Become less and less available. Have your child decline invitations to hang out with this friend, and never extend an invite to them.

- Let all communication fizzle. If the friend texts your child, they should reply minimally, if at all. The same goes for phone calls.

- Set limits. Enforce all family rules (regarding texting, phone calls, curfews), as toxic friends try to manipulate these. If your kid disobeys, follow through with consequences.

- Encourage your child to blame you. If the friend is putting your child on the spot (for example, confronting your child about not returning texts or hanging out), tell your child to blame you. “Your child will need an excuse at times, and if they are able to say, ‘My parents will ground me if I do that,’ it helps them save face,” said Rapini.

- Add more structure to your child’s life. The more activities your child has, the less time they have for this toxic friend. This will also encourage new friendships.

- Honesty may be best. For older kids, when issues like drinking and drugs are involved, your child can flat-out tell the truth: this behavior makes them uncomfortable, and it’s time to part ways.

It’s best if you can see the cues and prevent toxic friendships from forming, rather than trying to break them up later. Regardless, Rapini says toxic friendships are not something parents should take lightly. “Self-esteem is fragile in the tween and teen years,” said Rapini. “One toxic relationship can destroy your child’s self-esteem for years to come.”

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