Parenting: When your daughter is in a difficult friendship

Jennifer Geer

It's hard to avoid mean girls when you're young. But don't let frenemies take over her life.

I’ve had my fair share of mean girl encounters. The worst one of all was right before I started high school. My best friend in all the world, let’s call her Lisa, suddenly decided we were no longer friends.

It hurt, and I’ll never forget my confusion and sadness. But Lisa couldn’t leave it at that. She went through our entire friend group, telling lies and turning friends against me. It was summer. When I started my first year of high school in the fall, even though I’d lived in the same town and gone to the same school district since 4th grade, I was utterly alone.

My mom said I would make new friends, and she was right. One of them turned out to be another victim of Lisa’s. As the years went by, Lisa slowly faded from my life. Faded, but not forgotten, as it all came rushing back to me when I watched my daughter deal with a close friendship turn toxic.

I was 14 years old at the time of my mean girl incident. My daughter is not even ten. I thought we had more time. But here we are. She’s hurt, and I hurt for her. All I want to do is turn back time and go back to when a hug from mommy could cure all of the world’s troubles.

Of course, there’s no going back. Time keeps moving forward. I need to know how to help her through this without bringing in the baggage from my past. And no matter how much you hurt at the time, these things are temporary. The bad times won’t last forever. The key to surviving hurtful situations is learning how to be resilient.

What are the behaviors of toxic people?

Sometimes you don’t know a child’s friendship is toxic until it blows up in your face. Toxic friends don’t always engage in outward bullying that’s easy to spot. They act as trusted friends in the beginning. And once they gain your child’s trust, the bad behavior begins.

Here are some of the ways they operate:

  • They are controlling. They may act critical of your child if she goes against their rules. Outwardly friendly to the child in front of parents and teachers, they wait until they are alone to make hurtful comments. You may notice your child changing their behaviors or speaking negatively about themselves.
  • They’re not consistent. They’re the closest of confidants one day, and exclusionary the next. Your daughter never knows what to expect and blames herself on the bad days.
  • They use social control. The toxic friend plans an outing, excludes your child, and lets her know she was excluded.
  • They talk about your child behind their back, turning other friends against them.
  • They use social media to bully. When I dealt with my toxic friendship in high school, I had a break when I went home from school. With social media, today’s kids never get a break.

Ways to help your child cope

Toxic people can be quite charming in the beginning of a friendship. Adults have trouble spotting them, so how can we expect children that are just beginning to learn the ins and outs of social life to realize what is happening to them?

Chances are, your child will be immersed in this dysfunctional friendship before either of you realize what’s going on.

Here are some ways you can help:

Listen and spend time with her. Listen with empathy and try not to come up with solutions right away. Let her talk. Let her know you understand how she feels. Spend as much time with her as you can. Sometimes kids reveal information when you least expect it. I’ve found with my daughter we can be driving or making dinner or doing some other task, and she’ll start blurting things out. I learn a lot more in these spontaneous moments than when I directly ask her what’s going on.

Be careful with confronting the other parent. Kids with toxic tendencies are very good at covering things up and putting on a different front to parents and teachers than what they do when they are alone with friends. Unless you have more evidence than your daughter’s word, the other parent may not believe you, and it may end up backfiring on you both. You also don’t want to lose your daughter’s trust if she’s asked you not to say anything. You don’t want her to hesitate about telling you the next time something is going wrong.

Help your child get some distance from her friend. Your first instinct may be to tell your daughter not to have any more contact with this friend. This could be complicated however if they are in the same school together and have the same friend group. Cutting out this girl out of her life might mean cutting out her entire group of friends. What you can do is help her reach out to other friends outside of this social circle. The more friends she has in different social groups, the less vulnerable she’ll feel to one person.

Remind your daughter of all of the traits to look for in a good friend. A good friend is someone:

  • you can count on
  • you have fun with
  • you can be yourself with
  • who is trustworthy
  • who is honest
  • who cheers you up when you are sad
  • who supports you when you have successes

Be patient. Your daughter may blame herself for her troubles. Be patient with her as it may take her time to realize she is in a friendship with a dysfunctional person. Let her talk when she feels like it and give her time to come to her own realizations.

Get professional help. Sometimes it helps to have an objective professional step in and give advice. A good therapist can provide methods for coping and positive ways to handle difficult situations.

Read a book. Here are a few suggestions for you and your child to read:

Be open to listening

I know I can’t hug away my daughter’s problems the way I used to. But hugs still help. And I can still be the number one person she trusts and relies on. Teaching her methods to empower herself, while doing my best to keep my old baggage out of it, can help her develop her resiliency which she’ll carry with her the rest of life.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area. New articles published each weekday.

Chicago, IL
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