Validate your child's feelings and let them know you empathize when they deal with toxic behavior from a friend. (Photo: skynesher via Getty Images)
Your child comes home from school upset. A friend said something mean to them, compared them to someone else in a negative light, or made them feel like they don’t measure up in some way.
As a parent, you’re wired to protect your child. You may have to restrain yourself from running down to the schoolyard, getting right in that kid’s face, and warning them to think before they speak next time.
But you’re also an adult, and you understand that it’s not a good idea to act on impulse. Here’s what experts say parents can do to help kids recognize and deal with toxic behavior from a friend.
First, what makes a child’s behavior toxic?
Toxic might seem like a harsh way to describe one kid as being not so nice to another, but it’s an accurate description of a pattern of behavior that some children exhibit.
A toxic friend isn’t someone who says something malicious one time, feels remorse and apologizes.
“Is it something that’s a repetitive, ongoing, consistent thing?” Ann-Louise Lockhart, a pediatric psychologist practicing in Texas, told HuffPost this is a question to ask yourself when deciding if a child may or may not be displaying toxic behaviors.
There may be an apology, but this sort of friend will repeat this behavior in what can become a vicious cycle. Or they may act kindly when adults are present, but exhibit cruelty behind closed doors.
“If your friend is consistently belittling you and insulting you and saying mean things about you and throwing you under the bus, is that really a friend?” said Lockhart.
The answer may be obvious to an adult, but not so clear to your child.
There are a couple of reasons that a child might act out in a bad manner. These children “lack some emotional regulation and emotional intelligence,” Erin Leonard, a psychologist who has written widely on the topic, explained to HuffPost. Some of them, she said, may have an undiagnosed oppositional defiant disorder, a behavior disorder that can make them hostile to anyone they’re interacting with, not just other children.
Others might display hostile and unkind behavior because of insecure attachment. A toxic friend is “a child who does not know they’re insecure,” said Leonard, “a child who feels profoundly insecure and compensates with narcissism.”
This type of child may act out as a way of overcompensating for that insecurity.
“In order to feel secure in the friendship, they have to tear the other kid down,” Leonard explained. “The hallmark of a toxic kid is they are completely unaware and they do not care how their actions and words impact someone else.”
Acknowledge the hurt of toxic behavior from a friend. (Photo: Witthaya Prasongsin via Getty Images)
How can one child respond to another’s toxic behavior?
You’re probably not going to be standing within earshot when your child’s friend says something ugly, or cruelly excludes them. And it’s hard to come up with the right thing to say at the moment — not just for kids, but for anyone.
While it’s understandable for your child to feel defensive and want to respond with a snide retort, this escalates the conflict and makes it seem as though both children are equally responsible for wrongdoing. This may be exactly what the friend wants.
Help your child devise a couple of ways they can respond that will more likely shut the behavior down. They can have the security of keeping these helpful tools in their back pocket for when they need them. Here are a few tactics your child can try:
1) Ignore the behavior or walk away. It deescalates the conflict when your child refuses to participate in the exchange.
2) Set a boundary. Your child can simply say, “You need to stop saying mean things/teasing/leaving me out,” said Leonard.
3) Name the dynamic. If the friend crosses the boundary that’s been set, “they need to talk about the dynamic,” said Leonard. “They actually need to say ‘You’re being mean,’ ‘You’re being hurtful,’ ‘You’re being rude.’” By naming what’s happening, your child is refusing to be provoked to respond with more viciousness.
4) Agree with them, or say something unexpected. It may sound odd, but this can be an option for kids who are older and have a more sophisticated sense of humor. “When someone says something that you don’t like, sometimes saying and doing things that are unexpected really throws people off,” said Lockhart. If a child says, “Why are you reading that book? It’s for babies,” your child could say, “Waa, waa, I’m a baby.” The kid who made the nasty comment probably won’t know how to respond to that!
Finally, warn your child that things may get worse before they get better.
“When the toxic friend can’t get a rise out of that kid, they up the ante — and that is when they get caught,” explained Leonard.
How can a parent support a kid dealing with a toxic friend?
“The most important thing for a parent to do is to honor how bad it hurts,” said Leonard. If you do this, “that child will continue to talk to you and that child will open up.”
Rather than jumping in with suggestions, listen to your child and make space for their pain.
Leonard also believes that there’s no reason to wait in getting your child in to see a counselor if you feel it’s needed. “That counselor is safe and confidential,” she said. Your child may be able to tell them things that they are uncomfortable telling you.
After listening and validating their feelings — and providing some space from the latest incident — talk to your child about strategies, like the above, that they might use to deflect the malicious behavior.
You can role play with your child to help them figure out which responses might work for them.
“It’s about walking our kid through the different ways you can do it so that they could find out what feels best for them in the moment,” said Lockhart. They can also debrief with you after an incident and share how they felt saying what they did, or what they might have said instead.
If your child is having a hard time understanding that a friend’s behaviors are toxic, Lockhart suggests discussing what makes a good friend. She even recommends bringing out markers and paper or a whiteboard to make a list. You can then reference this, pointing out when someone doesn’t meet the friendship criteria.
If they continue to want to be around this person, she suggests asking open-ended questions about why they want this person in their life.
Maybe it’s “because they’re popular, or because they’re pretty or because they’re well-liked,” said Lockhart.
“Their answer will help you to help you see what is it that they think they’re missing,” she added.
Movies and television are another good way to engage kids on the topic of friendship. They may be more open to talking about the interactions of imaginary characters than the people in their own life.
“Based on what they’re telling you, you can find out a lot about what they view as positive and what they view is not so positive when it comes to interactions with potential friends,” said Lockhart.
What should parents not do?
When talking with your child about a friend, it may be tempting for you to say reductive, unhelpful things about that person or their behavior. But, if you want to inspire your child to be a bigger person, you need to resist this urge.
“We [make] so many assumptions about people’s behaviors, and we label them as a bully and toxic when maybe that person is hurting,” said Lockhart. “Maybe they didn’t even realize they’re being insensitive. So I think we have to really allow our kids not to jump to conclusions and judge other people for their behaviors when we don’t know what’s driving their behavior.”
That other thing you’re tempted to do, to head straight for the schoolyard? Or perhaps get on the phone immediately with the teacher or the other child’s parent? You should hold back there, too.
“By intervening and trying to fix the problem, the parent is going to make it worse,” said Leonard.
“It’s humiliating and embarrassing for kids,” said Lockhart. “And it also communicates to them that I don’t trust that you know how to solve your problem.”
Rather than leaping in to rescue them, we can help kids “advocate for themselves and find their voice,” explained Lockhart.
Your goal isn’t, at least primarily, to get the other child in trouble. You want to help your child develop tools that they can use when they encounter this kind of behavior from anyone, in any setting.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.