What can I do to protect my teen from a toxic friendship?

two interlocking colorful hands

By Catherine Newman

Q Let’s say one’s kind and empathetic 11th grader, V, befriends 12th-grade siblings who are brilliant but deeply troubled: chaotic home life, psychological issues all around, both sibs on meds, one committed to a residential psych facility twice so far this school year. When on a manic upswing, these magnetic, fascinating human beings monopolize V’s afterschool hours with hours-long one-sided phone calls that cut into his study time and energy. When low, they end up in fugue states on the bus ride home they share with V, and ultimately end up crashing with us or at other ‘safe houses.’ We’ve advised a bit of distance or some firm boundaries or at least a time limit on phone calls. V pushes back saying how can they be yet another person who lets the siblings down, who isn’t there for them. I suppose the question boils down to: How can you protect your teenager from a toxic friendship without saying point blank they can’t be friends, especially when the toxic friends need help? 

A For me, one part of this issue is: to what extent is it ethical to put our own kids first? And I find that to be a weirdly hard question. Because of course we put our kids first. That’s one of the parenting inevitabilities. But then, also, it doesn’t feel entirely right. I wanted my newborn daughter not to be diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, even though statistically one of the babies in the waiting room was going to be. I want my kids to get cast in their musicals, picked first, admitted to college—even though it’s all a seesaw, and other kids are low when mine are high.

Winding back to the issue at hand: in my own experience, I have hoped that the difficult people in my own children’s lives would just, more or less, fall gently off the planet. It’s not that I’ve wished them harm—just, well, an absence from our us. But of course, what if my kids were the troubled kids, the ones with the possibility of benefitting from someone else’s good influence, from their kindness and generosity? And to be clear: kind and generous is what you are being. You want these kids to be healthy and whole. But it’s taking a toll on your family.

Naturally, I asked 14 and 17 (who is now, sob, 18). “Fuck,” 14 said, when I was done reading your question, and then, after a brief swear-laced silence, “Fascinating can be so dangerous. It stresses me out that her son doesn’t want to let these kids down.” Both of my kids acknowledged that the fact of an established endpoint is good: whatever else happens, these troubled siblings will leave the school at the end of this year.

Eighteen, predictably, doesn’t think you should force V to back off. “Like in movies? My mom says we can’t hang out any more. That never goes well. The top priority has to be that your child doesn’t need to do anything on the sly. You don’t want him to be stuck feeling like he has to be sure his mom doesn’t know about whatever.” He added, “I’m remembering that the one thing that helped in our conflict about phones and video games [picture obvious conflict] was when you made clear expectations about everything else that needed to happen. We want you to do four honors classes, spend time with the family, practice piano. . . If your life can accommodate all that, and video games too, okay.

He expressed the sense that it’s the same with these friendships—that they’re worrying both in themselves, but also because they’re disrupting other priorities. “What if you made positive rules?” he wondered. “Not cutting back on the friendship, but doing the important, nourishing things that the friendship is in danger of replacing. You need to get eight hours of sleep, eat dinner with us every night, keep your grades up. Then it’s not abstract, since these things outside the friendship are more easily quantifiable. The friendship can fill in whatever gaps are left.”

Fourteen thought this was great advice, but she wondered if it might actually help to be stricter—or at least to perform a certain kind of strictness: “It’s so tricky, but I wonder if you could make rules with the purpose of giving your kid something in his toolbox for getting away. Rules might take a little pressure off him, in terms of this friendship. It might be kind of fake, but it’s something he can say to the kids when it’s just too much: My mom said I have to come home. My mom said I had to study.” I remember doing this even when my kids were tiny—when they’d ask if they could go home from preschool with this or that unsettling classmate, and I’d note the stricken, nervous look on their faces. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I’d say. “But I really need you home this afternoon.” They were always completely relieved.

But what about these people in need? These brilliant, complicated, troubled 12th graders that your ethical, good-hearted son doesn’t want to let down. Can you schedule a meeting with you, V, and your school’s guidance counselor? For one thing, this will help remind V that, when it comes to mental health issues, he is not actually a trained professional—and other people are. Ideally the counselor will be able to reassure V that s/he is on the job. And for another, the counselor might offer good, practical strategies for managing the friendship and maintaining healthy boundaries. (Also a million dollars and a pony.)

It takes a village, but also there are mama bears in that village. We care about you, we want to help, but our teeth are bared, our claws are out, and you should probably back off a little from our cubs. Even if you’re only cubs yourselves.

Do you have a question for Catherine Newman about the inside-out or upside-down of life with your teen? Submit it here

Catherine Newman is a contributing writer for Motherwell and the mother of Seventeen and Fourteen. She is the author of the memoirs Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness, and also the new children’s book One Mixed-Up Night.

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