Teenage Frenemies

A frenemy makes you think of that old adage, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” A true friend is someone that you love, trust, and who provides support and encouragement. In contrast, a frenemy is someone your child calls a friend, but who never acts in their best interest; someone who is manipulative, unkind and critical. These toxic relationships are damaging to your child’s esteem and can cause grief and anxiety.

How to Spot a Toxic Friendship

Toxic friendships may appear normal at first, but changing behaviors will clue you in that there is a problem. Following are some typical behaviors of a frenemy for which parents can be watching:

Random Exclusion. One day the frenemy will be pledging undying friendship for your teen, then the next they will host a social event and go out of their way to let your teen know he or she is not invited.

Backhanded Compliments. A backhanded compliment is when a compliment is used to convey a negative. A frenemy uses words to tear down people around them, instead of build them up. They may make comments like “That color looks good on you, which is so much better than what you normally wear” or “I love how you don’t care about the way you look.”

Starts Gossip. A frenemy is a backstabber. He or she might tell a secret your child shared in confidence. He or she might even spread completely untrue stories about your teen. Either way, the frenemy is only interested in his or her own agenda, and is not concerned about your teen’s reputation or privacy.

Competitive. A frenemy always wants to win. They will gladly point out when they win, using your teen’s failures as a source of affirmation about themselves. If they can’t win at something, they will label the activity as boring or uncool.

Dishonest. A frenemy is often a liar. Your child will likely catch this person telling untruths quite often. The lies will likely be very stressful to your teen, perhaps putting them in awkward situations, and most often, a frenemy will blatantly deny lying.

Controlling. A frenemy wants to control the friendship and will manipulate your teen. A dead giveaway is if you notice that your teen is giving up things that were important to them in order to please this “friend.” For example, your child might quit a sport, club or other hobbies to spend more time with the frenemy or because the frenemy has deemed their hobby “boring” or “stupid.”  The frenemy may also try to isolate your child. Parents might notice that their teen now only has time to spend with the toxic friend and all other invitations are ignored.

What Parents Can Do To Protect Their Teen

Toxic friendships erode a teen’s self-worth and often are a source of stress. Additionally, the behaviors modeled by the toxic friend can encourage risk-taking in your teen. To gain the friend’s approval, they will be more likely to lie, put others down, or make poor decisions to fit in. That said, a parent may feel desperate to protect their child. What is a parent to do?

First, let us tell you what NOT to do… do not forbid your teen from spending time with a specific person (toxic or otherwise), and do not repeatedly criticize their friend(s). This will actually encourage your teen to defend their friend and/or spend more time with them. They will rebel and likely will lie to you about it, which causes a whole new set of problems. Remember that because teens are in a stage of life where they are trying to become independent of their parents and at the same time find a place to belong or fit in, criticizing your teen’s friend(s) is like criticizing your teen themselves.

Instead, you can focus on behaviors. There is a big difference between saying “I don’t like your friend” and “I don’t care for the way your friend is treating you.” Additionally, if you notice your teen’s behavior is changing, you can address the behaviors you don’t find acceptable with discipline, structure, and limits.

But, the most important thing a parent can do to help protect their teen is to talk to them about the situation in a non-judgmental and open way. Remember, your child is hanging out with this friend for a reason. Ask what they are getting out of the relationship. Make observations about the effects of the friendship; for example, a parent might say “I have noticed recently that whenever you spend time with ____, you end up feeling upset or angry. Why is that?”  Ask them what characteristics a true friend has and remind them that they do not have to spend time with anyone who is mean to them.

Through open-ended conversation, your teen may come to the conclusion on their own that their frenemy is not a good influence on them. If this happens, then you can brainstorm ideas with your teen about how they can reduce the influence the frenemy has over them (perhaps not sharing secrets with them or avoiding certain events). This might require your teen being assertive and speaking up next time an incident occurs. This takes a lot of courage and your teen will need a lot of support.  Let your teen know that you are willing to help them in any way.

Finally, encourage your teen to spend more time with helpful and affirming people.  Invite positive friends to spend time in your house. Enroll your teen in social and recreational activities that will give them more exposure to positive friendships.

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