How to Handle Problem Friendships

What do you do when you realize that one or more of your child’s friendships comes with some baggage? Maybe the friend lacks the values you want for your own child, and you’re in a battle to see who can influence your kid more. The fact is, there will be moments where you have to moderate or discontinue a friendship between your child and another. Here are some things to consider as you navigate that tricky territory.

1. Beware of the parent politics. Remember that when you decide your child shouldn’t spend any more time with another, you’re essentially saying something about the other child and the job her parents have done in raising her. A friend confided in me once that her middle-school daughter was hanging around with some “mean girls” and she wanted to put some distance between them. The problem? The mean girls were the children of her mom friends! In this case, it’s important to know how mature and open the other parent is. If she’s one with whom you can be honest, in love, and say, “I’m really concerned about this issue with our girls and their classmates, and I know this isn’t something you would approve of either. What can we do to improve the situation?” you may be able to save both friendships. On the other hand, if your mom friend isn’t open to that kind of honest and constructive dialogue, you may just have to help your child back away more passively: being “busy” when the mean girl calls, and investing more time in other, more positive friendships.

2. Don’t send your kid on the mission field alone. Some parents avoid the tricky task of protecting their child from a negative friend by defaulting to the “they need to stay friends so my child can influence him” approach. And while it is noble and right to want to be a positive impact on a child who may lack other good role models, you can’t allow your kid to do this work alone. All too often, the grounded child becomes the follower rather than the leader and the whole thing backfires. You can’t expose your child to this type of challenge until he or she is much older and more mature—typically not before late adolescence or young adulthood. So how do you treat the other child with compassion? Include him or her in family activities where you will be present and engaged the whole time so that you can minimize any negatives and help your child to model positives. But sending your kid alone to spend time with the other? Out of the question.

3. There are times when you pull the plug—for good. There are moments when wisdom demands that we take more decisive action for the good of our children—and absorb the shrapnel from the social explosion, if necessary. If your tween or teen is involved in a friendship with a kid who’s completely out of control and exposing your child to dangerous things like drugs or alcohol, end it. Period. And if you’re worried about your child suffering from social backlash from other friends and adults, take the blow for her by making it known that it was your decision, not hers. There may be some who don’t fully understand your actions or motives, but if your life is generally characterized by love, honesty, and compassion, most wise onlookers will know the score and respect your decision. And if they don’t—that’s the price of parenting and it’s worth every dime.