My Child From Is Friends With a Kid I Think is a Bad Influence

As parents, we don't want to see our kids get hurt, especially from their peer group. But should we tell them what to do when it comes to friendship?

An illustration of two girls.
Photo: Illustration: Emma Darvick.

Very Worried Mom

My daughter has a friend that I think is a bad influence on her. They have become really close but the friend is a constant gossiper, manipulates my daughter to get her way, and just has a really bad attitude. I've tried to let my daughter know how I feel but she got angry at me. How can I let her know how I feel without pushing her away?

—Very Worried Mom

Dear Very Worried Mom,

With each phase of growing up, our children's peer groups hold more and more influence. In fact, a lot of research suggests that we as parents really don't matter that much once our children are teenagers! So, it makes sense that you want your daughter to surround herself with as many positive influences as possible. But how you approach this situation is very important.

How to Get Involved

Involvement in our children's friendships becomes an important part of parent development. We go from carefully choreographing preschool play dates to our elementary school children wanting none of our wisdom. We face our own learning curve of figuring out where we fit with our children's social development as they grow up and away from us.

I have had to do this with my own children, forcing my mouth shut when I heard of my daughter excluding others and letting her come to the realization on her own that she does not want to treat people this way. When she described a "friend" not acting like a friend, I could see so clearly that she needed to ditch this kid, but I could also see that my daughter needed to figure it out on her own. It may have taken a few months of me painfully watching, waiting, and biting my tongue, but she got there.

As challenging as it can be to watch our children in friendships that we see as negative, we need to remember this is part of their social learning. We did not always have all this clarity and wisdom; we got it from making our own mistakes and suffering our own betrayals and life lessons.

As you mention, when you let her know how you feel, she gets angry. It's a good instinct to know that it's time to shift gears. It's often more effective if we approach our older children and teens without telling them what to do but focus more on how to decide what to do. The less judgment they feel from us, the more open they are likely to be about their struggles, which means we end up able to help them more.

Identify the Problem

Right now, it sounds like you see a problem and your daughter does not. So, the first step is to talk to her in ways that might help her shift her perspective. Our children have super radar for our ulterior motives, so come at it from unexpected directions with subtlety. One angle is to focus on positive friendships, asking more about her time with friends you prefer and what she likes about those friends. Instead of talking her out of one negative friend, turn the attention to positive influences.

Another strategy is to share your own memories of friendships around your child's age. I still remember being abandoned by new friends on the playground, getting swept up in mean kid behavior I immediately regretted, and having epiphany moments about who was a real friend. Being open about your own learning may help your child feel more comfortable realizing and admitting their own doubts, getting you closer to the same page.

Be Patient

Even if your daughter is able to see that maybe her friend isn't the healthiest person to be around, it may take time for her to admit this out loud or even to herself consistently. I have seen my own daughters take a winding path in their friendship routes, as seeds of doubt are still small compared to whatever appeals these friends have. However, once the seeds of doubt exist, it can be a matter of time and patience for those seeds to grow into making a better choice.

As you wait, you can keep showing interest by normalizing struggles and asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions. Stay away from this specific friendship, but use this approach to help your child think through friendships in general. Some examples:

  • What is it like for you if you hear others are gossiping about you? Does that ever happen? At your age, it happens a lot, and it can be stressful.
  • I remember doing things because of peer pressure that I felt guilty about later. How do you think you would deal with that? Everyone goes through it, and it's good to figure out how to make sure you are doing what you want to instead of being pushed into things.

As your child feels more comfortable being open and honest, they might start to share hints that there are parts of this friendship that make them uncomfortable. You can help your kid think and talk through any doubts at their own pace, which will likely move more quickly toward a better outcome than if you do the thinking and talking.

Understand Why

It might be important to understand why your daughter is drawn to this friend. Asking her some open-ended questions about what she gets out of being friends with this girl can accomplish two things: understanding your daughter's experience and helping her feel understood. Is it possible that being friends with her protects her from being targeted by gossip, for example? Not the best solution, but it sheds light for you on what might be motivating your daughter's friend choice. Discovering this can help you better support her, again shifting from judgment to understanding.

The Bottom Line

As tempting as it is to "stop them from hanging out," the downside is your child misses out on important learning opportunities and will likely make you the target of more anger. Unless there are safety concerns like this friend's negative influence encouraging your kid to sneak out in the middle of the night or other risky behaviors, it's best to take the role of consultant instead of director. It may take all your willpower to hold in your opinions and watch your child make mistakes, but then it's their mistake instead of your judgment, and you feel closer instead of pushed away.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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