As a middle school teacher herself, Michelle* thought she had seen it all when it came to complicated adolescent friendships. But when her own daughter, Lauren, a 7th grader, was consumed with one, the curveballs came fast and furious. Over the course of a year, Lauren’s relationship with her “best friend” Amanda had turned toxic. The red flags were obvious. But a way out wasn’t.
The unhealthy dynamic between the two girls came to a head during the Covid lockdown, when Lauren spent hours FaceTiming with friends from school. It was her only way to maintain social connections, so it was especially devastating when Amanda began to behave in a way that was clearly abusive. “She would just attack her and beat her down and say things like, ‘I’m having a bad day, so I’m gonna take you down with me,’” recalls Michelle. As the bullying intensified, Amanda began to target Lauren’s looks. “We would overhear Amanda saying, ‘Your lips are too big. Your forehead is too small. Are you wearing that?? Why aren’t you wearing this?’ I began to notice this change in my daughter. She started asking me to buy all these clothes from brands she’d never worn before. She was suddenly becoming very focused on her appearance. It was like Amanda was controlling her, elevating herself by making Lauren feel inferior.”
Lauren looked for an escape route. She began asking her parents to interrupt the video calls, pretending they needed her to come to dinner or help with her younger sister’s homework. But when school resumed full-time, the bullying escalated. Amanda would monopolize their mutual friends, physically blocking Lauren out of conversations, or inviting others to sit at her lunch table so that Lauren, because of social distancing rules, would be forced to eat alone.
Eventually, Michelle spoke to Amanda’s mother, with whom she had been friendly. This also backfired. Although Amanda’s mom had once sheepishly apologized for her daughter’s fixation on looks, her admission of responsibility stopped there. In fact, during what turned out to be the final phone call between the two parents, Michelle aimed for the bare minimum: She asked that Amanda simply be kinder to Lauren in school. “Her response was that this was all my daughter’s fault. She ultimately said that Lauren’s happiness should not rest on Amanda’s shoulders.”
None of the way this played out would surprise psychotherapist Erin Leonard, PhD, who has written extensively about toxic friendships. Attacking behind closed doors, reframing the situation to portray the victim as the aggressor, manipulation, control, gaslighting, isolation. These are the calling cards of the toxic narcissist. And these issues may crop up earlier than middle school. Even preschoolers are capable of exhibiting toxic behavior. Also, beware those Mean Girls tropes. “Narcissism does not discriminate in terms of gender,” says Dr. Leonard. “Boys go through toxic friendships too, and they may be even less apt to talk about it.”
So what’s a parent to do? While you may want to insist your child cut the toxic friend out of her life, involve the authorities, or even switch classes or schools, none of those are advisable remedies. “Demanding the child sever the friendship is rarely effective,” writes Dr. Leonard. “From a child’s perspective, dealing with a toxic friend may be less terrifying than having no friends at all.”
For Lauren, the only way out was through. Towards the end of the year, she performed in a school musical with Amanda, but kept her guard up, and has kept Amanda at arm’s length ever since. “I told her, ‘Be polite, but don’t let her in again,’” recalls Michelle. “Fortunately—and unfortunately—my daughter learned a very important lesson in life. Hopefully the next time those red flags pop up, she’ll know, ‘This person might not be good for me.’”
Here are four signs your kid’s friendship may be toxic, and five ways to help them through it.
*Names have been changed
Signs your child has a toxic friendship
1. You notice sudden changes in his or her mood, habits or behavior
If you notice a dramatic shift in your child’s personality, demeanor, sleep habits or appetite, don’t dismiss it, says Dr. Leonard. If she loses interest in something she used to love, or even ceases to do the everyday things she did once naturally, like play with the dog or do crossword puzzles in the newspaper, “That’s a sign that maybe something is going on in her internal world.”
2. There’s gaslighting going on
“Kids who have a strong narcissistic streak are often insecure, so they will be threatened by a child with a kind nature and emotional depth,” says Dr. Leonard. “They will continually target one child and turn everyone else against that child.” Key methods of attack include distorting what your child says or rewriting history to make others the aggressor. They will provoke with backhanded comments and then gaslight when your child responds defensively, keeping their own provocations private. “A child who needs to defend a very fragile ego will attack first. They will ‘poke the bear’ and then when the bear defends themselves, they will capture that roar and show it to all their friends. So the friends then say, Oh well, she’s the problem. She's the bad guy. She’s the villain.”
3. The toxic friend’s behavior doesn’t pass the mirror test
As a parent, your job is to remind your kids of their own good heartedness. Tell them, ‘You would never do to anyone what your friend is doing to you.’ Toxic friends create and thrive on confusion and distortion. Oftentimes the more empathetic child doesn’t realize who is at fault. She may worry she is being unfair or did something wrong to cause the upset. Ask your child, ‘If the shoe were on the other foot, would you ever do to someone else what X is doing to you?’ If the answer is a resounding no, it will become clear that the toxic friend is the problem. “Narcissistic kids are envious of kids who are empathic because empathic kids have a power,” says Dr. Leonard. “They interact in the world and relate to others in a way that the narcissist cannot. And the narcissist is very threatened by that.”
4. The toxic friend will use their scars as an excuse
Kids with toxic tendencies lack empathy, accountability, insight and emotional intelligence. If your child’s toxic friend finds herself in trouble over her bullying behavior, she may bring up a difficult or traumatic past to try to excuse or deflect from taking responsibility. “These kids really can’t access a conscience,” says Dr. Leonard. “They exploit a kind child’s conscience. They play dirty. And they sleep so well at night.” Trying to resolve a conflict with a toxic friend may be futile. “If they ever get called out on anything, they flip to, ‘I’m the victim.’ So they’re either the hero or the victim. Both are defense mechanisms.
How to Help Your Child Through It
1. Listen, don’t advise
It is natural to want to tell your child to simply cut off the friendship. But your best bet is empathy. “When your child expresses worry about the friendship, the parent needs to step in and say, ‘I get it, Honey. I’ve been there and I feel your discomfort. It's very difficult to think a friend is mad, and to feel like you’re facing something that’s going to be hard. I get that, I understand and I’m going to be thinking about you tomorrow when you’re sitting at that lunch table. And if something uncomfortable happens or you’re hurt in any way, then when you get home, we’ll talk about it. I’ll help you.’ Parents need to empower the child and comfort them. You don’t want to save your kids from an uncomfortable situation, from disappointment or from experiencing negative feelings. You want to help them with it when it happens. That’s a really important distinction.” Help your child understand that even though things are challenging, he still has to go to school. Running and hiding will only diminish his sense of self-efficacy.
2. Ask the school to monitor their interactions
When Lauren was in the thick of her struggle with Amanda, she confided in her school counselor and a few trusted teachers, asking them to keep an eye on their interactions. While this did nothing to alter the way Amanda was treating her, it was an important step towards self-empowerment for Lauren. If a parent is really against the ropes, Dr. Leonard suggests doing exactly what Lauren did. Approach the principal, a trusted teacher or counselor and say, ‘I know there’s a really tough dynamic going on between the two kids. I understand [the toxic child] is well liked and appreciated by the school, but I feel like there’s something going on behind the scenes. Is there any way you can closely observe their interactions, when both children don’t think a teacher is watching?’ This has to be surreptitious, Dr. Leonard explains. “If a bully knows a teacher is watching, they’ll flip the script and be nice to the kid they are bullying.”
3. …But prepare for pushback
While in a perfect world, adults in positions of power would believe and help your child, don’t count on it. “Sometimes going to the school backfires,” says Dr. Leonard, “because usually kids with a strong narcissistic streak do a lot of legwork. They are very invested in creating a favorable public image, which then protects them while they do their dirty work behind the scenes. So other parents and teachers often have an impression of a child that may not be accurate.” This public approval fuels the toxic child’s ego. They will often be the first to say, ‘Oh let me help you, teacher. You dropped your pencil.’ And then the teacher thinks, ‘Oh this is a thoughtful, empathic child.’ “Well, not really,” says Dr. Leonard. “It’s tricky. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. A lot of clients who come to me have been truly bullied by the kid who won the humanitarian award or is the valedictorian. These kids are very manipulative. They are going to show off their social graces in front of everyone else. They won’t bully your child in front of a teacher. They won’t bully him in front of a parent. But they will bully him when they think no one is looking.”
4. Help your child confront behavior, not character
A child should try to ignore the bully and turn the other cheek, walking away with her head held high. The bully wants to get a rise out of your child so they can turn around and say, ‘Look, that kid is mean. That kid is angry!’ If your child doesn’t take that bait, the toxic child may up the ante until your child responds. But only when things become physical should your child say, “Back it up. You’re picking a fight. I don’t want this drama. This is not ok.” Your child should stick up for herself in a way that is calm, and highlights the dynamic, not the bully’s character. Saying, ‘You’re trying to intimidate me and I don’t like it. You need to stop. That is not ok,’ is not the same thing as saying, ‘You’re mean, you’re a jerk, you’re the bad guy!’ “If someone sees that, they’ll think your child is the bully,” says Dr. Leonard. “Both kids will get taken into an office and the bully will say, ‘She called me mean! She called me a jerk!’ Then the innocent kid gets framed as the bad guy. I’ve seen it a million times.”
5. Focus on your kid’s inner life
Parents, Dr. Leonard notes, are focused on the external. We do our best to ensure our kids eat healthy, exercise, keep up with their homework and get good grades. “We want to take care of the external because that provides us with feedback. If I get external feedback that my child is successful, then that means I’m doing a good job as a parent. But there’s a whole other part to parenting, and that is being attuned to a child’s inner world. Just because they get good grades or are a rock star on the soccer field doesn’t mean that everything is ok inside.” Pointing to skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression and suicide, Dr. Leonard urges parents to become attuned to their kids’ emotional barometer. Consequently, a strong parent-child relationship “will make the outer world go a lot better. If you take care of a child’s internal world and provide them with a safe place to share their worries and be close, that child is going to take care of the external world themselves.”