As a parent, you probably love watching your child make friends. It’s wonderful to see their social skills (and social lives) bloom, to see them play and laugh, and to know they are learning to support—and be supported by—their pals. Science even says that friendships can boost your kid’s success in key ways: Children with close friendships have higher feelings of self-worth in adulthood, according to researcher Catherine Bagwell, Ph.D., of Emory University.
But sooner or later, you will probably encounter a friend of your child’s you just don’t like. Maybe the kid in question plays too rough, curses, is bossy or a bully, or seems to be up to something—and definitely not something good.
When this happens, most parents feel at a crossroads, questioning their reaction and wondering what steps, if any, to take. Here, we take a closer look at this situation and advice on navigating these tricky waters.
Before you start analyzing why you don’t like a particular friend, acknowledge and accept your emotions. It’s extremely common to get that knot in your stomach or furrow in your brow around one of your child’s pals.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with having unhappy feelings about your child's friends. Feelings may be unpleasant, but they're never wrong in and of themselves,” says Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., LICSW, a clinical social worker and author of "How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids," among other books.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having unhappy feelings about your child's friends. Feelings may be unpleasant, but they're never wrong in and of themselves.
Once you’ve done this, you can move on to identifying what has you upset and what feelings are being triggered for you. Do you feel fear, anxiety, frustration, or anger, perhaps? Take a deeper look at your discomfort to understand why you’re bristling at your child’s choice of friends.
“You may be concerned about how the friend’s behavior will impact your child,” explains Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and director at Horizons Developmental Resource Center in Caledonia, MI. “During the school-age years, these behaviors could be anything from a perceived lack of manners to physical aggression, but they tend to be something that makes you uncomfortable and worried your child will start copying.”
When kids reach middle school, the concerns typically morph. Perhaps you overhear a friend say something cruel to your child or notice that your sensitive kid seems stuck in a cycle of blow-ups and reconciliations with their supposed BFF. Maybe your child comes home seeming guilty or sullen after hanging out at the pal’s house after school.
These situations can have you losing sleep given how challenging adolescence and the middle-school years can be. “Will the friend treat your child well or influence them in problematic ways? Will the friend introduce them to dangerous behaviors? And will your child be able to make healthy, safe choices in the face of peer pressure?” says Naumburg, illustrating the typical anxieties permeating a parent’s mind. No one wants to see their child taken advantage of, hurt, or under bad influences.
There’s another facet to this “don’t like the friend” situation which can be harder to admit. You, as a parent, may dislike something about the friend’s parents. Take time to turn this over in your mind.
Are you concerned that the home is improperly supervised? You may worry that your child is playing M-rated video games while the parent watches football. Or perhaps you feel the parent likes to gossip about other parents, which makes you uncomfortable and leaves you wanting to dodge interactions.
“Sometimes parents would rather their kid not be friends with a child so they don’t have to deal with potentially uncomfortable interactions with the parent,” notes Beurkens.
By considering these possibilities, you should be able to uncover what’s behind that uneasy feeling you have about your child’s friendship, which is vital to deciding if and how to wade into the relationship.
If your introspection reveals that you’re uncomfortable with the friend for reasons that are not related to the friend’s behavior and/or your child's safety, it’s probably best to set your concerns aside. Perhaps the child comes from a different background than your family does or expresses themself in a different way. Despite your discomfort, that may be exactly what appeals to your child.
“Parents need to be very aware of the line between their feelings and their child’s feelings,” says Beurkens. “It’s easy to assume or expect that the child should feel the same. But parents and kids often have different thoughts and feelings, and that’s healthy and appropriate.”
Challenge yourself to understand where your feelings are coming from. Are they rooted in an experience you had with a friend growing up? Are you worried that your child is experiencing an uncomfortable feeling or situation? “Often the resolution has nothing to do with the child or the friend, and more to do with the parent becoming aware of their own issues and working through those,” says Beurkens.
Of course, there are plenty of times you should intervene. If the other child’s behavior or interactions with your kid are toxic, step in, but do so in a way that doesn’t pit the parent against the child.
Learn more about the relationship without passing judgment. According to Naumburg, parents can ask questions such as, "Tell me about your friend. What do you like about them? What do you enjoy doing together?" Parents may learn something that changes their minds about the friend while opening the lines of communication.
Yes, it’s tempting to say something like, “I do not like that boy Ethan!” Try to resist that urge.
“It’s not appropriate to say negative things about the friend or their family—that has the potential to create a rift between your and your child and is likely to create more difficulties as it gets back to the friend/friend’s parents,” advises Beurkens.
If you say negative things about the friend, it’s likely to come out when your child explains, “My mom doesn’t want me to spend time at your house anymore.” Don’t put your kid in that difficult position.
If you observe something that concerns you, or that you think your child isn’t aware of as problematic, ask questions about the behavior. You might say, “So how did you feel when Morgan said that to you earlier? Do they often get angry like that?” or "Tyler only seems to call you when they need something from you," or "You often seem cranky or sad after you hang out with Emma."
After sharing those observations, give your child a chance to voice their perspective as well. They may have been wondering how to handle the situation and appreciate the opportunity to work out ways to shift the dynamic.
“Validating their emotional experience without rushing in to fix it for them is an invaluable parenting tool at any age,” says Sarah Bren, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Upshur Bren Psychology Group in Pelham, NY, and host of "Securely Attached," a parenting podcast.
She recommends drawing them out with some gentle questions. “Phrases like ‘I can see that this is challenging; how can you talk to them about how you’re feeling?’ or ‘I’m noticing you’re feeling sad after hanging out with Sam; what could make things feel differently?’ might be a place to start,” she says. Help them by sharing your own experiences with friends and advising them on ways to improve the relationship.
Sometimes, though, these steps don’t resolve the issue you’ve perceived. Here’s how to move forward.
If the pal is behaving in ways that are dangerous or unsafe, feel empowered to break up the friendship. Set hard limits with your children around spending time with that friend. These may range from saying that child can come to our house, but you can't go to theirs. Or you can hang out after school, but no more sleepovers. In some situations, you may need to say no to any contact at all.
“I would encourage parents to focus on the specific behaviors in question, rather than making global statements about the friend,” says Naumburg. Talking to the other child’s parent may be warranted. Also, if there’s bullying at school between the two children, you may need to speak to the appropriate teachers or counselors.
If the situation isn’t dangerous, but you’re not fond of the friend, coach your child rather than acting for them.
“It’s our job to keep our children safe and healthy. It’s not our job to prevent them from experiencing negative emotions or challenging experiences,” observes Bren. “If you are able to identify your own negative feelings about this friendship and also recognize that your child is enjoying this friendship, or perhaps there are bumps and challenges to the relationship that aren’t dangerous, it may be worth sitting back and trusting in your child’s capacity to navigate these rougher waters.”
Helping a child manage the ups and downs of relationships can be an incredible demonstration of your trust and confidence in them.
Whether your child’s friendships are smooth sailing or having a hard time, help model healthy relationships. That can mean using stories, books, and movies that spotlight important qualities—both positive and negative—in friends. Talk to your child about how friends treat one another, and what healthy and unhealthy exchanges look like.
Don’t shy away from discussing that not all friendships will last, and that’s okay. Children need to know that even if they had a great time with a pal over the summer, situations change. If they aren’t feeling positive about that person anymore, it’s fine to re-evaluate the relationship.
“Most of all, we want to send the message to our kids that we trust them to choose pals, engage in relationships, and navigate the sometimes murky waters of friendships,” says Beurkens. “It doesn’t mean we can’t provide some input, guidance, and be there to support them in their sadness when things don’t go well. But we don’t insert ourselves inappropriately. This is about our kids—not us!”