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Six Ways to Help a Child Who Has a Toxic Friend

A sudden change in a child's mental health may point to a toxic friendship.

It’s one of a parent’s worst fears: A child’s friend suddenly seems to have control of their child’s mental health. A once-secure child is discovered crying hysterically in her room, withdraws from her family, and refuses to say anything for fear that a parent won't understand.

Yet, when the child regains the approval of the toxic friend, the child is happy again. This rollercoaster of temporary highs and devastating lows repeats and the child can’t seem to get off of the ride. Everything in the child’s life begins to pivot around pleasing and appeasing the toxic friend.

Is it possible for a toxic friend to have that much power and control over another child? Yes, in fact, it is. Toxic people have an intense streak of narcissism. Egocentric and manipulative, the toxic person is masterful at creating a positive public image for himself or herself with parents, teachers, and coaches, yet, is very different behind closed doors. Covert in his or her manipulations, the toxic child works hard to garner another child’s trust. Once they have the child’s trust, the toxic friend begins to say or do hurtful things.

For example, often a toxic friend excludes a child from events the child was previously involved in, and then displays these events on social media in order to hurt the child. Another example occurs when the toxic friend unfairly accuses the child of behaviors the child is not engaged in. This is often referred to as projection, and while normally a universal and benign defense mechanism, it is used to an extreme by a toxic individual. A third example occurs when the toxic friend aligns the child’s friends against her behind her back.

The toxic person uses the first two examples to provoke the child. When the child attempts to ask why she was excluded or defends herself from an unfair accusation, the toxic friend uses this against the child, accusing the child of being “dramatic” or “crazy.” The toxic friend also distorts this material and broadcasts it to friends behind the child’s back, framing the child as the “bad guy.”

If these symptoms and patterns become obvious to a parent, it is important to help your child. Demanding the child sever the friendship is rarely effective because the child’s friends have likely been manipulated by the toxic friend and are now on the toxic friend’s side. From a child’s perspective, dealing with a toxic friend may be less terrifying than having no friends.

Moreover, it’s often difficult for a child to see the manipulations because she has already been convinced that she is the problem. Most individuals struggling with a toxic relationship are unable to recognize the toxicity when actively engaged in the relationship.

In addition, approaching the toxic friend’s parents or involving school officials also may backfire. Many toxic children have narcissistic tendencies because they have been exposed to dysfunctional ways of relating by a parent.

Toxic individuals deflect accountability and project blame elsewhere, so the parent of the toxic friend may incite additional drama and place more blame on the child. In addition, because the toxic friend has gone to great lengths to create a good public image for himself or herself with teachers and coaches, the school may not believe the parent.

Utilizing an empathic and thoughtful approach may be the most effective. Six techniques may help.

  1. Listen with an open heart. Refrain from telling the child what to do and instead empathize with what the child is feeling. If the child makes statements like, “I’m not good a good person.” Or, “I don’t deserve to be here.” The parent may try empathizing, “It hurts to feel ashamed and less than. I get it. There were times when I was your age when I felt like that too.” Empathizing with the child’s feelings allows them to feel understood and connected to you because you understand. This allows the child to feel less alone in her plight.
  2. Next, ask open-ended questions. Try to get the child talking. Hopefully, empathy has decreased the child’s defensiveness so it’s a good time to help the child open up. “What makes you say that, honey?” What is it that makes you feel like that?” When the child opens up, again empathize with the feelings. “You have every right to be hurt. I would be too. What happened to you is not okay."
  3. Next, develop trust. Relay to the child that you will not go to the school or confront the other parent without the child’s permission. Maintaining trust in the relationship is imperative. The child’s trust has been repeatedly violated by the toxic friend, so having a relationship that embodies trust is critical. In more serious cases of bullying, it may also be important to explain to the child why you need to talk to the school or child's teacher.
  4. Attempt to illuminate the toxic friend’s unscrupulous tendencies. Ask the child, “Would you ever do that to anyone?” Hopefully, the child will realize that she is not the problem; that the toxic friend is the one with the issues.
  5. Be patient. The child may have a difficult time seeing the toxicity because she is too busy blaming herself. Yet, give her time and always be open to talking.
  6. Help them get some distance from the toxic friend. Encourage your child to reach out to friends from other circles, for example, kids from the neighborhood, church, choir, or volleyball. Finding other friends is imperative. Help them reach out to the healthy kids in their life whom they have not recognized as possible friends. Spending time with kids who are not associated with the toxic friend may allow them to experience feeling accepted, respected, and included. These relationships may allow your child to differentiate between a toxic friendship and a healthy one. This insight may prevent your child from being manipulated by the toxic friend in the future.

The rates of narcissistic personality traits are growing rapidly in this country, which may partially explain the bullying epidemic. Social media makes it even easier for bullying to occur. The chances a child may find himself or herself stuck in a toxic friendship are high. It is critical that a parent possesses the tools to identify a toxic friendship and assist the child in escaping the abusive union before irreparable damage is done.

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