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September 6, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 84

How Do I Encourage My Tween to Drop a Bad Friendship?

Episode 84

Friends are supposed to make you feel better, but what about when kids have “friends” who leave them feeling awful? How do you help tweens and teens identify when a friendship has become toxic and gracefully remove themselves without becoming socially isolated? Reena and Dr. Lisa discuss how to handle tricky friendships, how to help kids create distance without being hurtful, and how to make sure that kids don’t have all of their friendships eggs in one basket. Dr. Lisa also explains what not to do when helping kids get out of bad friendships.

September 6, 2022 | 28 min

Transcript | How Do I Encourage My Tween to Drop a Bad Friendship?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 84: How Do I Encourage My Tween To Drop A Bad Friendship?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: You know what I love in the start of school? I loved when you’re starting to make new friends and you don’t know what the school year might be, it’s kind of exciting. I miss that. You don’t have that in the work world. 


LISA: You know, it’s true. You’re like, who is going to be in the lunchroom and where are they going to array themselves and who am I sitting with. It’s both exciting and I think terrifying for a lot of kids. 


REENA: Right. Work from home, it’s just me and the dog at lunch. 


LISA: Yeah, there’s some comfort and pleasure in not having to worry about who you’re going to hang out with at lunch every day. That’s a tough thing to have to worry about. 


REENA: We got this letter. What do you do when your kid is in a friend group you just really don’t like? Here’s what the letter says: ‘Dear Dr. Lisa, I’m worried about my sixth grade daughter’s social situation. She spends a lot of time with a friend who makes her feel bad. And it’s clear that my daughter is feeling ready to move on. At the same time, I note that she’s worried that she’ll lose all of her other friends in the process. How do I help her end a bad friendship without becoming socially isolated?’


LISA: Oof. 


REENA: What stands out to you about this letter? What do you think this mom should do?


LISA: Oh this is such a good question, Reena, and sixth grade is such a prime time for this kind of concern where a kid’s like, eh, it’s not really working for me anymore and yet we’re in the same network, so how do I get myself out of it but not all the way out of it so I don’t lose all my other friends? What I just love about this letter is that it so immediately recognizes how different kid friendships are from adult friendships, or school friendships are from our adult friendships. Because you know you and I are saying you have lunch with the dog, it’s fine. As adults, we don’t tend to have our friendships in these elaborate networks. We have this friend here, and that friend there, and maybe a few times we’ve got a group of friends. But for kids, especially at school, all of this is happening in this complex web, and so if there’s a kid that is a problem for you for any variety of reasons, it’s not like you can just sort of like stop engaging with them. Because they are at your lunch table, or they’re invited to all the same stuff you’re invited to. 


REENA: Totally. 


LISA: This is a tough question that is very real, and I think so often as parents, and this parent is not doing this, but as parents when we hear about this we’re like, well just stop hanging out with her, and the kid’s like, oh if only it were so easy. 


REENA: Right. So, is there such a thing to drop a friend and be able to move on cleanly?


LISA: Well, it’s interesting because what this calls to mind is an episode from last season about my kid got dropped by her crew. 


REENA: Right. 


LISA: And I think that episode, we could probably call it, how not to drop a kid, and so let’s start with this letter with how we wouldn’t want this sixth grade girl to go about this, and I have seen kids do. Which is they don’t want to be in the friendship anymore with a kid who’s in their group, and so they start to align the entire group against that child, so as to excise the child while keeping all the other friends. I think that’s often what happens when a kid is dropped unceremoniously from a group, is that someone in the group was like, I feel done with this friendship but I don’t want to lose all these other kids in the bargain, so I want to do a gang up. So, that’s how not to do it. 


REENA: Okay, okay. 


LISA: And it’s interesting to think about this question coming from the other side because we’re hearing both sides of a story that happens a lot in schools where kids want to drop somebody or they are the one who gets dropped, and it’s tricky. So, the first thought I have is that this parent probably needs to empathize a lot with this kid about how hard it is to be in a situation where there’s someone that they hang out with a fair bit who’s part of their network, they don’t want to hang out with anymore. I think there’s going to be value in the parent making space for the kid to talk about what that’s like, and asking, so how does this play out at lunch? And how does this play out in math class? Just letting the kid think it through out loud without the parent jumping in with like, okay, so here’s how you’re going to get yourself out of this. Just sitting in that space with the child and being curious, is the kid always annoying or does the kid always make you feel bad? Or are there times when it’s working okay? There’s texture in this, Reena. This is probably not a totally straightforward situation and we’d want to know more. 


REENA: It’s interesting you’re saying, ask them about the friendship. You know, a lot of kids just don’t want to talk to you. They just shut down. But why is that important to ask?


LISA: Well, here’s my experience as a clinician, and I would say also as a parent, though I try to keep the two somewhat separated as much as I can. The more you know, the better your advice is going to be, and this parent knows something, which is that this is a friend who makes her kid feel bad, and that’s a really important piece of information, and that’s a piece of information that really matters. That this kid has tuned in to the fact that it feels bad to be in this relationship and is making a good judgment that like, you know what? This is an optional relationship, I probably don’t want to stay in it. We want to support all of that. But having spent a lot of time around a lot of kids, I also know that it is very rare that a kid is always hard to be around or always wonderful to be around, and I have a strong gut sense that this sixth grader would not have become friends with this child if it weren’t sometimes good with that kid. And I think the parent will be much better positioned to coach the sixth grader out of this friendship, and I think that is something that can happen if the parent is working with a fuller picture of when the kid is fun, or when it does feel fun to be with this kid, or what are some good times that this sixth grader really can cherish with this kid. You want to get the whole story because you’ll give better advice and also, there’s going to be some sadness about letting go of someone you’ve been friends with for a long time, even if it is somewhat hurtful to be with that friend, and you’re not going to be able to really help the child address the sadness if you’re not acknowledging that there are some qualities of this kid that have been really enjoyable, or some times that have been really fun. 


REENA: You know, it’s not just friends. I think about a boyfriend or a girlfriend. You want to also help your child be able to identify that if someone’s not making you feel good, it’s not worth the good times if most of them are making you down. Is there language, are there phrases or something, that as you’re coaching this child out of a bad friendship? What are things that a child can say to help them stand their ground? Because sometimes it could just be a bossy friend who calls all the shots and your child wants to be part of the group so badly, they go along with it. How do you counter?


LISA: Well, this is so interesting, this question you’re asking, because I think one way the parent might be able to help a little bit is to see if the friend wouldn’t benefit from some feedback. 


REENA: But the teenagers, they don’t want feedback, right? It gets them to turn sometimes on their friends. 


LISA: It can be ugly, right? But I would want to explore the possibility that if the parent’s like, tell me more about what this kid does that feels bad, if the sixth grader can talk about it. Then the parent might say, what would happen if you said to her, ouch, that hurts, or that makes me feel bad? Like really kind of play that out. What would happen if… And if the sixth grader’s like, oh that would not work, that would make it way worse, then we need to honor that because they understand, they have access to nuances and data that we will never have. But I do wonder, given that there is this risk, or this worry, about losing the whole friend group. I do wonder, is it worth a college try to give this kid a little feedback in a really gentle, kind way and see if that doesn’t make an adjustment, see if that doesn’t actually make having this kid in the group, or staying friends with this kid, a lot more doable. So, I think that that’s in there. But Reena, you were talking about boyfriends and bad boyfriends, and I will tell you, what it made me think about when you were talking about that, is clinically sometimes I have cared for a young woman who’s describing a relationship that sounds awful, or just doesn’t sound good enough at all for her, and one of the hardest things to do as a therapist is to not be like, you need to break this off. It’s very obvious. 


REENA: Girlfriend I’ve seen this coming. 


LISA: Yeah, like get out now. Get out now. And I’ll tell you the reason we don’t, clinically, is that we know that there may be a part of that patient I’m taking care of who’s complaining about the boyfriend in my office, but there’s another part that is drawn to that boyfriend and continuing to date him, and the minute I take the, you know what? You need to get out of this relationship side of things, what I’m basically doing is I’m forcing the patent into the, but you don’t understand side of things. And now my patient and I are at odds, and that’s not a good place to be. So, the way we handle this clinically, and then we can think about the kitchen version of this, but the way we handle this clinically is that we try to observe both sides of the conflict in the patient themselves. So I would say, here’s what’s really interesting: you’re here telling me about how painful it is to be in this relationship with this guy and yet you continue to hang out with him. How do you understand that? Right, so I ask them to wrestle with the conflict. So, this letter writer is saying, my kid’s done, my kid’s ready to be out, but I think that may be 100% true, I’m not sure. That’s why I was like, ask more, find out more, because if there’s ambivalence in the kid, you’re going to want to surface that and say, you know you say you don’t want to hang out with her but you also keep inviting her along with everybody else, explain that to me. You just want all those details on the surface as this kid is trying to work her way through this internal conflict. 


REENA: So, how do you sort of drop a friend without losing all the friends?


LISA: Okay, right. So let’s say the kid’s like, no, I am done. I have no ambivalence. Yeah, it was good, but it’s not good anymore and I don’t really want to hang out with this kid and yet I don’t want to lose my group. So, what I think I would then coach as the adult in this, having asked a lot and knowing a lot, really texturized this with a lot more information and being curious, is then to say, okay, how can you accomplish a polite distance from this one kid while still tolerating the fact that she’s probably going to be in your group, or you’re not going to be able to be entirely done with her? So, polite distance is the magic phrase here, which is you are allowed to remove yourself a little bit, but you’ve got to be nice about it. You cannot talk bad about her, talk bad to her, align kids against her, start rumors about her, that’s the kind of stuff kids sometimes pull. You’ve got to be polite but you are allowed to be quite a bit more aloof. So that would be I think the first step in this. 


REENA: Lisa, in your experience, what else do you think parents can do to really help in this situation?


LISA: Well, we’ve got this polite distance idea, and if this played out ideally.


REENA: Right?


LISA: Which it never will, but if it played out ideally, this kid would be a little bit more aloof, the other kid would kind of get the message that they would spend less time together, and when they had to be together it would have to be with lots of other kids around, so maybe it wouldn’t be a problem. That’s not often how easy it is. And one of the things that I hear about a lot, and I could picture in a scenario like this, is where one kid feels done and the other kid continues to text and say, do you want to come over, or can I come over, where there is a lot of asking and asking and direct, let’s get together, and I’ve heard parents talk about like, oh my gosh it sometimes feels like there’s a kid with a stranglehold on my kid, like they’re always reaching out and my kid doesn’t want it anymore and my kid is trying to not be mean and doesn’t want to be harsh with this kid but does not want to hang out, that can be really delicate. So, if that’s happening, I think one strategy that can help is to blame the parent, you know to be like, we’re really busy tonight, I’m sorry. Or my mom’s got something going on, I’m sorry, and answering, right? Getting back to the kid and not necessarily promising I’ll call you when I’m free. What I often see kids do is they feel super awkward, that the kid who wants the friendship will say, can you come over to my house, or do you want to do something later? And what I’ve seen kids do for lack of a better strategy is they’ll say, oh okay, sure. And then they’ll cancel at the last minute, or they won’t respond at all, and I’ve cared for the kid on the other side of that who’s like, it’s super weird, I’m texting her and asking her over and she’s not even replying, and I’m like, oof I get that, but it’s not really okay. So, another strategy I think that sometimes kids need is to say, oh, you know we’re really tied up, I’ll let you know when I’ve got some more time, or something like that, and then leave it open, and give an answer, but blaming parents can be really helpful here. 


REENA: Wow. I guess I also want to ask the reverse. What not to do when you’re trying to extricate your child from a bad friendship?


LISA: So, one thing I would not do, though it can be very tempting, is talk about it in the community or talk about it with other parents, and I think that’s really tricky, that it’s really hard when a kid is hurting our kid. And that’s right there in the letter, right? My kid doesn’t want to be friends anymore because it’s painful to be in this relationship. And I’ll tell you, Reena, I have had this happen as a parent where you’re aware of a kid who’s hurt your kid, and I don’t know, have you ever had that where you’re like, oh, that kid is not nice to my kid, have you had that happen?


REENA: Well when you know your kid doesn’t feel good about something, what it could be that somebody’s better in sports and it makes them feel bad, or whatever the case might be, I just find that it’s hard when your child is suffering and does not feel good and has to spend a lot of time around this kid at school. 


LISA: Yeah, it’s really painful. And sometimes kids are flat out mean. I’ve seen kids be flat out mean and the parent’s aware of it, either they’ve witnessed it or they believe it, and I will tell you, it’s really hard as an adult to not talk bad about the kid who has hurt your kid. I think it gets at something very primitive in us where we’re like, oh my god, that little mean girl. And so I would say the first thing to do anytime if you can help it is if a kid hurts your kid, talk about it in the confines of your home, but do everything you can to not bad mouth that kid in your community, even if you’re really angry with that kid, which you very well might be. And the reason for this is, first of all, it’s just better not to. In terms of just not spreading yuck in the world, but the other thing is kids grow and change a lot, and it’s not unusual for the kid who’s the spiciest in fifth and sixth grade, and maybe a challenge to be around, to really blossom in the coolest ways in seventh and eighth or ninth and become these really positive leaders and these really super kids, and I always just want to give kids a lot of room to grow and change because I see kids grow and change so much. So, I would say one thing I would not want this parent to do, if they can help it, is to get on the horn and talk about this difficult child with anybody else. It’s tempting, but I would think it would be much better not to. 


REENA: So many of the things, as parents, that you want to impart to your kids, there so many things before they go off to college, but knowing how to make good friends and identify them and stay away from the toxic ones, what do you find in your experience, Lisa, that really works at getting kids to understand that so they don’t end up in the wrong crowd?


LISA: Yeah, yeah. So, what I love about this letter is I think the way it was framed is that this is a kid who makes my kid feel bad, and so my kid wants out. And so, whatever else happens with how this unfolds, there’s so many variables that it can unfold in 400 different ways. I love that this kid has tuned into the fact that being around this kid makes me feel lousy, and I don’t want to do this. And the more that can get unpacked and talked about at home, like the parent saying, it’s so good of you to notice what it feels like to be in somebody else’s presence, like that’s such powerful information, and you’re going to want to always listen to that. And I think about how, in life, anyone we’re with brings to the surface different aspects of ourselves and different feelings about what it’s like to be in their presence. And you know how sometimes you’ve been at a party, this happens to me where I’m at a party, and someone starts talking to me and I’m like, oh I’ve got to get out of this. 


REENA: Yes. 


LISA: I’m like, I need to use the restroom, right?


REENA: Oh my god. The worst. 


LISA: Right, like this instinct and gut sense of like, I don’t want to be here. And then you know how there’s other people where you’re around them and you’re like, oh my gosh, like I so feel good in their presence, I so enjoy their company. This is such powerful data and the earlier and more often kids learn to tune into this and to trust this, the better. And so, this tricky relationship does open the door to really good conversations about things like that. 


REENA: Is there anything else you think the mom or girl here could do in this situation?


LISA: I do wonder about a backup plan for this girl. 


REENA: What do you mean?


LISA: So, the real worry in this letter is not about moving out of this friendship, it’s the worry that the friendship may cost her the whole friend group, that she may actually end up socially isolated. And so, I presume this is a networked group of kids, and so maybe she accomplishes a polite distance from that child and the rest of the group is like, you’re not being cool to so and so, and we’re going to all accomplish a polite distance from you, right? Like that would be very scary. So, one of the things I think is really, really valuable for kids, especially in middle school, is to have a second string of friendships as a backup plan. And kids do this in different ways, some kids have the kids on their block that they’re friends with or grew up with, some kids have a real good network of cousins that are around the same age or near, some kids use their church community for this where they’re part of a religious group where there’s that network. Some kids use their camp friends. I am aware of kids who go to summer camp far away from where they live but stay in communication all year round with their friends from camp, by text. And so I actually think with or without a delicate situation like this, you want your kid to not have all of their friendship eggs in one basket. They should have one egg in some other basket somewhere just in case something goes wrong. So, I would wonder about, as a good set of insurance here, a little bit of insurance here if the parent would want to look at other ways that if this all just totally goes sideways, right, it does not go well and maybe this kid who this child is trying to distance themselves from like really retaliates and takes everyone with her, I’d love to think that she might have some other buddies that she could connect with. 


REENA: Wow, that’s interesting. So, even if your summer friends or camp friends that you hang out with for a week or two, or your cousins live halfway across the country, that having those friendships who they can reach out to. You always say, you just need one really good friend, and it doesn’t have to be your friend in school. 


LISA: Absolutely. Absolutely. And the other nice things about those networks is I’ve seen kids use those networks to get support around something they’re struggling with in their home network, and as much as I would not want this sixth grader to talk about it, I’m so annoyed with so and so with everyone else who’s also right there in the same group, I think that that can be really problematic. There’s real benefit if she can get on the phone with her cousins and be like, oh my gosh, there’s this girl in my class who’s really making it hard because the cousins may live in another state, not know this kid, may never interact with that kid, and so I think about it as like taking the trash out and you’re like taking it all the way out, you’re not spreading the trash around in your own community. So, the backup friendships can be useful, even if she doesn’t get pushed out of this group, having a place where she can vent and dump about it without causing more trouble in her own community I think can be nice, but then also if things go sideways and she feels isolated, having the backup friendships can be useful that way too. 


REENA: That’s really good. So, there’s so much here to unpack, so I guess the bottom line is you can really help your child find a way, by talking it through, out of friendships that might not make them feel good. 


LISA: You can. You can. And it’s a really valuable thing to do together and I would just ask a lot of questions and spend some real time with it. Don’t assume that the solutions that would work for adults are going to work for kids. 


REENA: That’s good. So, what do you have for us, Lisa, for parenting to go?


LISA: One of the things I see kids get hung up on sometimes is what I would call a disjuncture between their front stage and their backstage. So, the front stage is what we show the world, what the world gets to know about what we’re thinking, and the backstage is all that is actually going on inside of us. And so sometimes I’ve seen kids get hung up in these moments where they feel like, if I don’t like her, or if I have a problem with her, I’m being two-faced if I don’t tell her. They feel like the front stage and the backstage have to match perfectly, and I think it can be helpful to disabuse kids of this notion. That there can be times when we decide we’re done with something, but we do not owe somebody full disclosure. Where in our minds we’re like, this isn’t working out anymore, I don’t like this anymore, I don’t want to do it anymore, and it’s not going to benefit me, it’s not going to go well to lay it all out. So, we can talk about their backstage experience at great length at home, while encouraging them to go to school, be outwardly polite, be maybe a little bit more aloof than they were, but letting them know that’s not being two-faced. That’s actually being diplomatic and careful in these moments, and that they are allowed to have thoughts and feelings that they keep to themselves so long as they conduct themselves in a polite and dignified way out in public. 


REENA: I hadn’t thought of that. And it’s interesting to help them think through why that’s not being two-faced. 


LISA: Yeah. Kids will call it that, like, you’re being fake, two-faced, and like, no, no, no. Adults all the time have moments where we have colleagues or relatives where we’re like, hi, but inside we’re thinking something else, and we don’t feel that we need to use full disclosure anymore than kids should feel they have to use full disclosure. 


REENA: That’s a great point. So, next week, Lisa, we’re going to talk about how do you help kids when they lose it when they make a sports mistake. I’ll see you next week? 


LISA: See you next week, Reena. 


The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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