It’s likely to happen at some point: Your child will choose a friend you don’t like.
Your feelings toward this friend could range from mild irritation to intense dislike. Maybe you find this friend annoying because she’s loud, destructive, or has a potty mouth. Maybe you don’t like his parents or the fact that he’s obviously never been taught to say please or thank you or to clean up after himself. Maybe you’re just fed up with having this kid always hanging around. Maybe you’re worried this friend will be a bad influence on your child. Maybe this is a friend who runs hot and cold, sometimes being nice and sometimes being mean to your kid, and you’re holding a grudge: Your child may have gotten past the conflict, but you’re still fuming, remembering the mean things that “friend” did.
Why forbidding a friendship probably won’t work
Out of concern for your child, or maybe just because you don’t want this kid around, you may be tempted to forbid your child from hanging out with a friend you don’t like. There are several reasons not to do this.
First, your child is likely to blab, announcing publicly, “My parents say I’m not allowed to play with you!” This makes you seem mean and could cause conflict with the other child’s parents.
Second, it’s possible that forbidding the friendship could make that friend seem more attractive to your child. A classic study in psychology by Richard Driscoll and colleagues coined the term “Romeo and Juliet effect” to refer to their finding that adult couples reported that parental interference in their relationships intensified their feelings of romantic love. More recent research by Colleen Sinclair and others failed to find evidence of this effect in adult couples and instead found that higher levels of interference or lower levels of approval from family and friends were linked to poorer relationship quality in adult couples. Presumably, parental disapproval places a strain on relationships, but it’s not a guarantee the relationship will end.
Third, it’s overstepping. Unless your child is in immediate, physical danger, trying to dictate who your child can or can’t be friends with strips your child of an important piece of autonomy (what’s more personal than our relationships?) and gets in the way with your child learning to navigate the social world.
Fourth, if your child continues the friendship, even without your support, it creates a rift between you and your child.
Here are some other options for how to respond when you don’t like your child’s friend.
Try to get to know the friend
If you get to know the other child better, you may be able to figure out what your child finds appealing about this friend. Most people have some likable qualities and discovering these might help you put your irritations in perspective. Also, keep in mind that children are constantly growing and changing, so the behaviors that annoyed you before may fade away as the friend matures.
Be careful about assuming that whatever bad behavior concerns you is only the fault of the other child. Your child might have been a willing or eager participant or even have encouraged the friend to do it. All kids make mistakes, sometimes. The other child probably isn’t a complete devil any more than your kid is always a perfect angel.
Be a gracious host
You don’t necessarily have to love everyone your child chooses to befriend, but by being a gracious host, you support your child and model good social skills. A side benefit is that you can keep an eye on things if you have concerns about the friend’s behavior. For example, if things start to get heated, you can diffuse tensions by asking, “Who wants a snack?” or “How about going outside?”
Be clear about your rules
If there’s something that the other child does that annoys you, it may help to explain your rules. Different families have different ways of doing things, and it’s not fair to be angry at a child for failing to respect your rules when you haven’t said anything, so she doesn’t even know what those rules are. Fuming silently will cause your resentment to build and won’t change what the child does.
You may want to talk directly to the friend, politely explaining what you want. For instance, you could say, “In our family, we take our shoes off at the door,” “We eat only in the kitchen,” “Please ask before taking something out of the refrigerator,” or “My bedroom is off-limits for playing.”
If the child is a neighbor who hangs around too much, you can say, “You’re welcome to play here until 5 p.m., then you need to head home because we have a family commitment.” The family commitment could be dinner.
You may also want to recruit your child’s help in reigning in the friend. You could say, “The last time Ethan was over, the two of you made a big mess, crushing chalk in the basement. If you want to play with chalk, please do it outside and remember to pick up afterward.”
Help your child think about the relationship
Ultimately, our goal is for our kids to make wise choices in their friendships. If you have genuine concerns about the friendship negatively affecting your child, rather than bluntly saying, “I don’t like that kid! You shouldn’t hang out with her,” help your child think things through by asking thought-provoking questions.
Start with the positives. Ask, “What do you enjoy doing with him?” “What do you admire about her?” “What does he do that shows you he cares about you?”
Ease into the more sensitive areas. “How do you usually feel when you’re with him?” is an important litmus test of friendship. Other useful questions include: “How often do you two have arguments?” “What qualities do you think a good friend should have? To what extent does she show those qualities?” “How does he show that he cares about you?” “Do you think she brings out the best in you, helping you make good choices?”
Your goal isn’t to have your child admit this is a bad friend but rather to prompt a thoughtful assessment of the relationship
Pave the way for other friendships
Sometimes kids stick with a not-so-kind friend because they feel they have no alternative. Although we can’t make friends for our kids, we can create opportunities for them to make new friends or deepen casual friendships. Possibilities include getting your child involved in new after-school activities, encouraging your child to invite different friends over for a playdate, or inviting another family for a family game night.
Take the long view
Children’s friendships often don’t last. One study by François Poulin and Alessandra Chan found that first-graders keep only about half of their friendships from fall to spring. Fourth- and eighth-graders have about one-fourth of their friendships last less than a full school year. These break-ups don’t necessarily involve big blow-ups. Often, friendships just fade away because children’s interests or activities change.
So, maybe this friendship that you don’t like won’t last, or maybe both your kid and the friend will grow up and the friendship will improve. Either way, your child will learn from being in the relationship. Just like with romantic relationships, sometimes kids need to experience what they don’t like to figure out what they do want.
Driscoll, R., Davis, K.E., Lipetz, M.E. (1972). Parental interference and romantic love: The Romeo & Juliet effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 1–10.
Poulin, F., & Chan, A. (2010). Friendship stability and change in childhood and adolescence. Developmental review, 30(3), 257-272. http://rescueproduction.free.fr/pdf/2010/Friendship%20stability%20and%2…
Sinclair, H. C., Hood, K. B., & Wright, B. L. (2014). Revisiting the Romeo and Juliet effect: Reexamining the Links Between Social Network Opinions and Romantic Relationship Outcomes. Social Psychology, 45, pp. 170-178. https://econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/full/10.1027/1864-9335/a000181