How to Handle Your Child’s “Frenemy”

Have you ever had a “frenemy?” That friend who goes through the motions of being a friend and even says that you’re good friends, but who routinely does things to hurt your feelings, dash your confidence, or stir up trouble? It can be exhausting to deal with a person like that—trying to decipher the passive-aggressive slights and figure out if she is someone you can trust. Can you imagine how much harder it is for your child? That’s why you need to know how to handle your child’s frenemies, Mom. Bad friends aren’t healthy for your child.

Sometimes kid frenemies just need to go their separate ways. At other times, it’s more complicated than that. What if the moms are good friends, or the children are trapped in the same class at school? Disentangling your child from the tentacles of a hurtful “friend” may require a bit of maneuvering on your part.

I have watched my five children experience friendships of all kinds: some positive, some negative. Here’s what I’ve learned about dealing with your kids’ bad friends.

Help your child understand the reasons why.

One of my girls had a friend in grammar school who was really insecure. Her insecurity caused the child to react with jealousy when my daughter spent time with any other friends and made her say discouraging things to shake my daughter’s confidence regularly. It was her way of leveling the playing field between them. My child saw it simply as meanness until I explained that she really felt bad about herself, and this is just the way it came out. It didn’t solve the entire problem (it was still a challenging relationship), but it did help my child to disregard some of her barbs and take them for what they really were: the other girl’s insecurity seeping out.

Accept that some friendships aren’t meant to be.

Sometimes we push our children to continue to socialize with a frenemy because it’s convenient for us. Maybe the other mom is your BFF or the most convenient carpool buddy for you. But if the children have conflict that your child can’t remedy by modifying her own behavior in a reasonable way, it’s not fair to continually put her in the position of having to deal with a disagreeable kid. Give her a break by not pushing them together frequently.

Role play relationship strategies.

If your child wants to try to save the relationship, help her learn how to handle the kinds of negative situations that come up most frequently with her frenemy. If her frenemy is guilty of constantly dishing out backhanded compliments or thinly-veiled insults, teach her how to kindly but firmly say, “You might not have meant it that way, but what you said just hurt my feelings.” Often, manipulative kids (and adults, for that matter) back down when their nonsense is brought out into the daylight.

Point out what genuine friendship looks like.

When your daughter makes the soccer team, her frenemy may have a snide comment while more genuine friends will probably show real joy for her success. Make sure she notices that and understands what true friendship looks like. Even if she learns how to cope with her frenemy, you don’t want her to be influenced by those negative relationship habits or adopt them herself.

When it’s really bad, do what needs to be done.

When all else fails, you may have to take more drastic steps to separate your child from a toxic friendship. Privately request that they be placed in different classes next year at school. Allow your child to decline invitations to play or sleep-over. If the child or the other parent asks if there’s a problem, be kind but honest. Knowing that the behavior is bad enough to cost her a friend may motivate the child to show more kindness. It might also help her parents see how to coach her toward being a better friend.

In what ways have you handled your child’s frenemies?

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