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.
Here Are 6 Ways To Help A Child Who Has A Toxic Friend
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.