As our children grow and experience the world around them, they will encounter a wide variety of people. As parents, we have little control over who our children will be drawn to. This becomes truer the older they get. Some relationships will be wonderful but some, unfortunately, will not. My older sons have had their share of difficult relationships, and I found it really hard at times to know just how to handle it. Fortunately, as a mother, I was able to learn right along with them.
We all have relationships that are less than ideal, and you can bet that your child will too. These relationships may come in the form of a controlling or manipulative friend, an abusive romantic interest, or even a family member who damages their self-esteem. These relationships are a fact of life. The truth is, even if we could shield our children from experiencing them, we would be doing them a disservice. The lessons our children learn about relationships when they are younger will be invaluable to them as adults.
Some signs that your child is in a bad relationship include:
- Losing friends because of the association.
- You witness manipulative behavior from the friend.
- Your child seems troubled after spending time with this person.
- Your child develops self-defeating language patterns or becomes critical of themselves.
- Their grades begin to decline.
- They suddenly lose interest in things they’ve always loved.
- Your child and their friend frequently argue.
- Your child frequently apologizes or assumes blame for most arguments between them and this person.
- Your child takes on responsibility for the feelings of this friend or family member.
- Your child begins to bully others.
- Your child becomes combative, especially after spending time with this person.
Most of the time, these relationships will sort themselves out and your child will walk away all the better for the new knowledge and confidence gained through that experience. Once in a great while, we may need to step in. It can be difficult to know when to get involved and to what extent. Here are some ways that you can support your child through these difficult relationships:
Be a safe ear. Your child needs to be able to come to you and talk things out. If you come off as challenging or hypercritical of someone they really care about, they won’t feel that they can talk to you, and you won’t know how rough it’s getting. Validate their feelings, and try to keep your personal opinion about it to yourself, unless your child is truly seeking help and not just venting.
Let your child have the power – be an ally. Don’t try to force them to end the relationship. Doing so will cause them to shut you out and could lead to them hiding facts and behaviors from you. You want to be supportive of your child while they work out their own feelings. Let them know that they have the power to leave the situation and that you will back them up, but you are not about to force the issue. Ask your child how you can help them.
Give your child options and discuss ‘escape’ plans. There may be a time when your child has decided that they have had enough of the relationship and wish to end it. This can be really difficult if your child is impressionable, or if the person who is toxic to them is a parent or another relative. Help your child come up with ways to break it off. If the person in question is someone they will still have to see regularly, help them come up with ways that they can avoid engaging with them.
Be ready to intervene if you feel your child is not safe. In the event that you have determined your child is no longer safe, you will need to step in. This runs the risk of your child keeping the facts of the relationship from you, if they have not reached a place where they’re ready to let this person go. The most important reason for being a safe listener is so you will know if the time to intervene has come. If you need to intervene and your child is unwilling, stay alert for signs that your child is hiding things. Don’t get involved if the threat is not significant enough to justify it. Never try to force your child to end a friendship just because you just don’t like their friend.
Model compassion and empathy while teaching your child the importance of boundaries. It can be really difficult to hold our tongue when it comes to people who are hurtful to our children. It is better to avoid a good guy/bad guy dynamic, however, as it only serves to confuse children and make it difficult for them to spot toxic people in the future. Your child may also feel guilty and embarrassed for not recognizing sooner that the person they grew to care about was a “bad guy.” Showing empathy for this person will be kinder for your child as well. They need to know that it’s okay to care for someone, even if we sometimes need to stay away for our own personal safety.
Of all of the lessons we teach our children, learning about relationship dynamics and relationship safety are extremely important. We read many books on how to feed our children, how to help them learn the potty, how to help them learn self-discipline, how to develop emotional intelligence and many other ways to become successful in life. Teaching them how to navigate difficult relationships and deal with toxic people should get the same care and attention, because they will deal with all sorts of people throughout their lives.
Destany Fenton, Author of They Are All of Me
Destany is an artist who works from home while raising her four kids, who range in age from teens to littles. A self proclaimed cheapskate and “maker-queen,” her do-it-yourself attitude compels her to promote self-education, frugality, and taking responsibility for our global community. She is attentive to her children and works to foster and maintain a deep connection with each one, while finding harmony within herself and remembering to take time for her husband. When she is not painting, cooking, gardening, knitting or playing with her kids – even the big ones, she is blogging about her life at They Are All of Me, where she shares crafts, recipes, and crazy mama mishaps that are bound to crop up when living with pets, teenagers and little ones.