“It’s not my child, it’s those kids he hangs out with!” is the motto of almost all parents. In some cases, it’s just some natural bias - of course you want to see your child as an innocent angel, even if evidence points to the contrary! But in other cases, it might really be true. Perhaps your little one, despite all your best efforts, has found themselves in a crowd of badly behaved, unruly peers. There are plenty of reasons this might happen, and plenty of effects it might have on your child, ranging from missed homework to bullying.
It can be very difficult, even for adults, to reckon with the fact that the people you considered friends actually don’t have the best influence on you and decide to take a step away from them. While you certainly can’t pick your child’s friends, you can help them avoid those bad apples in the classroom.
Here are some top tips that you can use to encourage your child to move away from toxic friendships.
1. Help your child "see the light"
It is important that your child recognises that this friendship is actually something negative. This might require some time and effort - we all know how defensive children can be of their so-called friends.
Discuss openly what a good friendship should look like. Ask open-ended questions to gather their understanding of friendships and encourage them to dive deeper. Without attacking them nor the so-called friend, explain why the friend’s behaviour is not acceptable and harmful to them. Try not to come across as bitter or judgmental, but do be assertive and honest.
While it may be frustrating if you don’t immediately notice a difference, it’s important you are patient. Avoid repetitive conversations, which will only breed resentment - and you don’t want to alienate yourself from your child. Chances are, they simply need time to reevaluate the friendship incorporating the knowledge they acquired from their conversation with you. We need to allow children to try to apply life lessons on their own before inserting ourselves!
2. Change your child's schedule
If plenty of time has passed and you see that nothing has changed, it may be appropriate to try a more proactive method. This does not mean forcefully detaching your child from the friend. Rather, you want to introduce new potential friends into the equation, so your child can first-handedly experience what a good friendship feels like.
You are going to struggle stopping your little one from chatting to their toxic friend in the classroom, but you do have control over what they do in their free time. Fill their after-school schedule up with fun activities with other children of the same age. Ideally, you can start by introducing the children of parents you already know, who are kind and caring. Your child will soon associate pleasurable activities with warm, welcoming environments, weakening their emotional connection to their former, toxic friend.
3. Ask your child's school to monitor their interactions
As mentioned, there are limits to restricting your child’s interactions with their toxic friends at school. Even if it were a possibility, too much control on your part will only trigger defensive reactions on theirs. But you can ask teachers to pay attention to how your child interacts with certain classmates.
This is especially important if you believe your child is being bullied. Indeed, a hallmark of a toxic “friendship” is bullying. You could say: “I have a feeling there is a toxic dynamic between my child and X. Perhaps you could keep an eye on it when they don’t think you’re watching.” It is important that this is done surreptitiously. As any parent knows, children put on a show when they know they are being watched.
4. Be more attentive to your child's inner world
We can all get caught up in our children’s external development. Whether they’ve won a medal in sports, achieved high grades, or learnt a new musical instrument, we tend to focus on aspects of our children that are easily visible. But what’s often missing in our observations is our children’s internal development. We need to pay more attention to their emotional state.
The tips outlined are most effective when you and your child have a strong emotional bond. They must feel emotionally safe in your presence and have trust that you understand them well enough to offer suggestions about their friendships. So make sure to create a safe space within your household for your children to regularly discuss their feelings. You will find that with this, they will also grow in confidence when dealing with the outside world and make it more likely that they ditch those toxic friendships themselves.