7 signs your child has a toxic friend

When bad friends happen to good children, what can a parent do?

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Remember when you were young and your Tiger Mum didn’t approve of you hanging out with the “Dennis the Menace”? “He’s a bad influence and I want you to stop seeing him!”. Mum would scold after she caught you doing something mischievous (again) with your best mate.

Yet you turned a deaf ear because “Dennis” was the coolest kid on the block. So what if you landed in the principal’s office mind after he egged you to disrupt music class? He was your BFF! In fact, wasn’t it twice as exciting to hang on to this pal simply because mum disapproved of him?

Fast-forward a couple of decades and karma is back to bite you on your behind. Your own offspring is now keeping company with a dubious character and you are at your wit’s end. It’s irresponsible to stay silent on the issue, but make one wrong move and you risk sabotaging your relationship with your little one. It’s a tricky situation, so check out our expert advice.

“I believe that children are generally good by nature and that certain environments create behaviours that may result in them being ‘toxic’.”

Is he a really bad friend?

Just because your naturally reserved child befriends someone loud doesn’t automatically make said friend a bad influence. “Kids usually form friendships out of opportunity, occasion, shared play interest, and sometimes, it comes down to chemistry,” notes Cornelia Dahinten family coach and director of The Parent You Want To Be ― Conscious Parenting Training and Playgroups, which organises regular parenting workshops and talks. “Some shy kids often look for boisterous friends and some boisterous alpha personalities often look for followers.”

It’s pretty easy to detect the red flags of toxic behaviour. Rafizah Begum, a senior psychologist at Dynamics Psychological Practice, says your kiddo might have a troublemaker pal if one or more of these scenarios sound familiar:

· Stories about the friend always involves him or her getting into trouble with authority figures, bullying or making fun of others.

· The friend doesn’t abide by your child’s rules, such as her curfew.

· The friend is rude to you or to other adults.

· The friend does things to deliberately annoy others.

· The friend is prone to angry outbursts and temper tantrums.

Click to find out what causes behavioural problems in some kids…

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Why some kids are behaviourally challenged

Dahinten says, “I believe that children are generally good by nature and that certain environments create behaviours that may result in them being ‘toxic’.” Such environments include having unhealthy and unstable attachments with their parents, or they are criticised or even neglected by absent parents. This refers to parents who are either physically not present and emotionally unavailable.

Children with a family history of mood disorders or substance abuse have a higher likelihood of behavioural problems. Rafizah notes, “Sometimes, if caregiving is poor and supervision is lacking, there is family discord or exposure to violence, children will respond by developing challenging behaviours.”

When these kids start acting out, it’s linked to how they themselves have experienced relationships, as well as their own understanding of how to get love, attention and connection. In fact, their toxic behaviour is driven subconsciously and usually unintentional.

Dahinten points out, “No child sits there and thinks, ‘Hmmm my mummy only gives me attention when I do something violent,’ or ‘I think people don’t really like me, which makes me feel bad, so maybe I can try to be mean to make them notice me’.”


It’s time to take action when you realise the friendship is damaging your child’s self-esteem and making her feel bad about herself.


Signs of a toxic friendship

Here are clear signs that your offspring is involved in a damaging relationship.

1. The toxic child makes fun of anything and everything about your child ― her appearance, favourite things, family, home and so on.

2. Your child is obsessed with pleasing her friend to the point of getting rid of everything she previously loved, including favourite toys and boyband posters, even other friends.

3. Your child starts to rebel ― getting into trouble in school, breaking rules, or behaving rudely to family members.

4. Your child is always spending time at her friend’s place, instead of inviting her home.

5. They fight on a regular basis, these tiffs often involve the toxic child getting angry with yours.

6. The toxic child plays nasty pranks on your child, making particular efforts to embarrass her.

7. Your little one becomes withdrawn, sad and angry for long periods of time.

Behaviourally-challenged children are often angry and have complicated relationships with others that are often tumultuous and controlling. There are five types of toxic relationships:

a. Push/Pull: The toxic child chases after your child for friendship, but every time your child suggests playing together, the toxic child pulls away.

b. Ownership: The toxic child gets upset if any other child plays with yours, or if your little one wishes to play with other children.

c. Whiplash: If anything bad happens to the toxic child, your child bears the brunt of his or her frustrations and anger.

d. Always say yes: The toxic child expects your child to agree with everything he/she says and will get upset when your child doesn’t.

e. Influencer: The toxic child is upset with your child and influences the rest of the children not to play with your mini-me.

Rafizah says, “Your child may be in a toxic friendship if you feel the friendship is costing your child more than it is rewarding him.” You may notice this when junior returns home distraught for the umpteenth time that she and said friend aren’t talking anymore. Another example is when she suddenly stops liking something she’s loved all her life, such as mashed potatoes, simply because her friend doesn’t like it.

You may brush this off initially as pre-pubescent behaviour, but it’s time to take action when you realise the friendship is damaging your child’s self-esteem and making her feel bad about herself.

Get tips on how to tackle a problem child, click on…

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6 ways to pull out of a problematic relationship

So now that you’ve identified the bad seed, how do you go about weeding it out without hurting your relationship with your mini-me? Here are some pointers…

Teach your child to recognise his/her values

Encourage junior to write down her personal values. Don’t dictate what to pen down, instead, guide her towards writing the list herself. It should include basic principles such as, “I believe in treating others nicely,” and “I believe honesty is the best policy.” Putting words on paper will resonate better with her and she’s more likely to remember them during tough times. While she’s doing this, also help her to make a list of her rights. She can assert them when someone tries to ill-treat her. The list should include statements like:

  • “I have opinions and should be able to express them freely”
  • “I may make mistakes, but I have the chance to try again”
  • “ I should be treated fairly”
  • “I will say no without feeling guilty or selfish”

“Perhaps the toxic child might be having genuine problems at home or may require some behaviour intervention.”

Don’t rush to pass judgment on the friend

Bad-mouthing the toxic friend or banning their friendship won’t get you the desired results. This will only breed resentment between you and your kiddo and create a negative environment. Rafizah adds, “Many times, children will choose to hang out with someone you don’t like as a form of rebellion.”

Instead, have an open discussion about it. Patiently wait for junior to express her point of view and ask non-judgmental questions to drill a bit deeper into the friend’s troubling behaviour. Questions to include, “Does your friend’s behaviour align with your values?” and “Do you think she says and does nice things?”

Rafizah advises, “Share your own opinions only after your child has shared hers.” Be firm with your opinions and make clear statements about the friend’s behaviour like, “I don’t like that so-and-so made fun of Johnny in class yesterday. I don’t want you to hurt other children’s feelings like that, too.” By doing so, your kid knows exactly where you are coming from and is fully aware of your concerns.

Invite the friend and her parents over for a playdate

What better way to highlight your concerns than in a real-life situation. Should anything disturbing happen, you can bring it up subtly to the child’s parents and use this as an example later in a discussion with your kid. You can also see how well junior stands up for herself and if she is speaks out against negative behaviour. If the other party’s parents don’t seem interested in handling the situation, Rafizah suggests speaking with the teachers if your child and her friend go to the same school. “Perhaps the toxic child might be having genuine problems at home or may require some behaviour intervention,” she points out.

Click for three more tips on tackling a toxic friendship…

Encourage your child keep busy with other activities

Now’s a good time to sign your mini-me up for that swimming class or drum lessons she’s been talking about for months. The benefits are twofold: It will keep her busy, so she has less time to spend with bad company. Plus, she might meet genuinely nice friends and end up expanding her social circle. Once junior feels that she has more friends to hang out with, she won’t be too scared to sever ties with the toxic buddy. However, don’t make the mistake of packing her schedule with back-to-back classes. Explaining that this could lead to many mental health issues, Dahinten adds, “Children need to learn how to wind down and relax and how to cope with themselves.”

Be a good role model

The only way to make a change is to be the change. Take your kiddo along when you’re having lunch with your BFF. She will get a first-hand glimpse at what a healthy, respectful and loving friendship looks like. You can even tell her that daddy was your friend first before becoming your husband. Also, ply her with stories about your friendship days and how you still respect each other as friends.

Set boundaries

If everything else fails, then it’s time to tighten the reins. If junior is adamant about spending time with the toxic friend, implement a curfew and stick to it. If the curfew is broken, follow through with the consequences. You should also monitor her tech behaviour. This might be a tough one to tackle without it being non-intrusive, Dahinten admits, but it’s important that your child knows why you are doing it.

“Have a family discussion on the topic of tech dangers and let the kids voice out first what they already know about it. Then, fill their knowledge with more facts if you feel they are not yet aware of all the dangers,” Dahinten suggests. “Agree on how much insights you need, discuss what you expect from them and how they can earn your trust.”

The key is to create a safe, stable and open relationship, where junior is able to make mistakes without being blamed or shamed. Dahinten advises that you maintain the natural parent-child hierarchy, but keep the boundaries fluid, so your child feels that she has some level of control. Otherwise she will withdraw, start hiding information and lying to you.

Photos: iStock

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