For a parent, it is a chilling thing to suspect that your son may be hanging out with bad friends. You certainly understand the importance of the well-being of your son, and the fear that comes with the idea that he may be led astray from good choices by the influence of those around him. Just as a good friendship can instill your son with confidence and guide him toward success, a bad friendship can undermine that confidence and have many adverse effects.
Before you can help your son escape a bad friendship, you first need to be able to recognize it, help him understand its effects, and prepare him with strategies on how to break up with a friend.
How Can You Recognize a Bad Friendship?
The first step to solving any problem is knowing that the problem exists. First, we will look at the definitions of positive and negative relationships, then we will examine common signs of a bad friend that indicate bad friendships, and then will determine differing categories of bad friends.
Signs of a Bad Friendship
Thomas J. Berndt, a psychological researcher at Purdue University, says, “A high-quality friendship is characterized by high levels of prosocial behavior, intimacy, and other positive features, and low levels of conflicts, rivalry, and other negative features.”
Since this defines a high-quality relationship, a low-quality relationship is exactly the opposite, and will be characterized by:
- Antisocial behavior
- Lack of intimacy
- High levels of conflict, rivalry, and negative features (such as a lack of confidence when near the person, discomfort, deterioration of self-worth, etc.)
Additionally, Jessica Firger cites Karen Valecic, saying that your son should ask four questions about a friend before proceeding to break or keep a friendship:
- Can I trust you?
- Are you committed to excellence?
- Do you care about and respect me?
- Do we bring out the best in each other?
By asking these questions, your son can further determine if a person is really a friend, or if they are just a toxic relationship. These questions are important to ask, for the following reasons:
- Trust is the basis of a healthy relationship, as both parties can be confident that the other has their best interests always in mind, and that they will not actively seek to harm the other.
- A great friend lifts up those around him by example and word. A commitment to excellence demonstrates that the friend will never neglect the essential life skills or responsibilities, or offer a bad example to follow.
- Respect is another central basis of a healthy relationship. By respecting opinion and personality, it shows that the friend values your son, rather than just seeing him as an accessory or an underling.
- This last question is perhaps the most critical of all. If continued interaction with a friend does not make your son strive to be better, but rather leads to worsening of behavior and the lack of good qualities, then you have a clear indicator of a toxic relationship.
Also, Mary Duenwald reported that “Some [friends] lie, insult and betray. Some are overly needy. Some give too much advice.”
Furthermore, Firger cites Valecic as describing common signs associated with bad friends:
- “In a harmful relationship, you may feel the friend is insulting, critical, needy, petty or selfish. A friend may ask for honest advice and then become angry when you deliver it, or do the opposite of what you suggest. A toxic friend may persist in giving unsolicited advice, or talk only about their own life and problems without considering your needs and feelings. Sometimes a friend may burden you with his or her own problems, whether it’s job, money, or relationship woes — but not offer any support in return.”
Different Kinds of Bad Friends
While it is important to keep your eyes open, bad friends come in a huge variety of forms. The following are common examples of bad friends, but the list is by no means comprehensive.
Mary Duenwald, in an article for the New York Times, found quotes about bad friends from reports of multiple doctors.
- The Risk Taker: This bad friend may be addicted to an adrenaline high, or may simply have bad role models in his or her life. Regardless of the reason why they choose to do so, this bad friend always seeks a more dangerous activity. This may take the form of more extreme sports, or may even stray over into criminal activity, drug addiction, or worse.
- The Betrayer: This kind of negative friendship may come in several varieties. Firstly, they may betray the confidence of a secret that your son tells, spreading sensitive information or feelings into the gossip pool. Secondly, a friend who, up until this point, has maintained a positive relationship with your son may simply turn away with no explanation and give him the cold shoulder.
- The Abuser: This is another variety who takes multiple forms. The first is that of physical abuse, where the person may inflict light to serious bodily harm on your son. The second, and possibly more pernicious, is that of emotional abuse, where the individual will lace conversation with insults, derogatory terms, and comments designed to undermine confidence and self-esteem.
- The Liar: This variety is never deserving of trust, as they fabricate all they say. They are excellent at using words to get out of situations, create untrue stories about themselves or others, and encourage others to do the same.
- The Never-Listener: This kind of bad friend is not necessarily a bad person, but may not be the best person for association. They constantly speak of themselves, and never listen to the needs or feelings of others. This can create a feeling of lack of worth in your son, as his son never gives the time of day to what he says.
- The Competitor: This type of friend only falls into the bad category when they take friendly competition too far. If this friend becomes overly aggressive during sports, video games, or other activities with your son, then they can be destructive to the relationship and cause feelings of inferiority or anger in your son.
- The Promise Breaker: This bad friend rarely ever keeps appointments or does what they say they will. This is destructive for your son, as they may associate that behavior with an idea that they are not worth the effort to keep promises, or that they are less important than whatever the other spent their time on.
Reading through the list may cause your own son to ask “am i a bad friend?” The harsh truth is that he may be. However, recognizing this fact is the first step to him changing his behavior for the better.
Strategies for Ending a Bad Relationship
Yes, ending a bad friendship or breaking up with a friend may very well be a painful thing, but it is worth it. The following are several strategies that can make ending a friendship be the least painful experience possible for both parties.
Be Completely Honest
The most consistent form of advice for dissolving a friendship is to be entirely upfront with the friend. Any attempts at concealing true feelings, or neglecting to give a reason for the break in friendship, leaves the reason up for speculation. Depending on the character of the friend, this can be disastrous, particularly if they are of the Betrayer or Liar types of bad friends.
Indeed, Rachel Jacobson, in an article for the Huffington Post, states that “not being completely direct and clear with one’s feelings leaves an uneasy, despondent, sting on both parties mind.”
Advice from Stephanie Grob Plante
The popular journalist Stephanie Grob Plante wrote an article for XOJane, where she offered some excellent advice:
- “Being blunt in this situation may feel very scary, and the last thing you need right now is a confrontation that devolves into your now ex-friend berating you. If you feel like you need closure with this person, be honest as you say goodbye. But also be prepared for the backlash. It’s almost impossible to walk away from conflict with a narcissist unscathed.”
- “The safer tactic? Particularly if this person is quick to attack you? Cut off communication, and surround yourself with friends who legitimately support you. This is the recommendation for those struggling to leave verbally abusive romantic relationships; why not adopt the same strategy with friends? It’s not cowardice; it’s pragmatic self-defense.”
- “You should still attempt to be honest about why you’re backing out of this friendship; but she may not be a person who’s able to receive constructive criticism. Do not feel badly if your friend breakup is, shall we say, an ordeal.”
The Valecic Approach
Jessica Firger, in an article citing Karen Valecic, states: “Once you’ve made the decision to close the book on a friendship, Valencic says it’s important to be clear with the person about your intentions. But, perhaps more crucial, it’s essential to let them know that you’re ending the friendship because of the way it makes you feel — not because of who they are as a person.”
She then goes on to give some suggestions of how to phrase the words:
- “You can say, ‘I care about you but it’s really hard to witness what you’re going through. I really need to end our friendship.’
- You can say, ‘I don’t find this really works for me, what you’re interested in and what I’m interested isn’t the same. This relationship doesn’t bring out the best in me.’”
While both of these phrasings are excellent approaches, as they focus on the self and not on the problems, the first phrasing may leave an opportunity for the friend to work on the sympathies of your son in an attempt to keep them in the relationship. The second phrasing can be problematic if the two friends do share plenty of common interests, such as hobbies.
In the end, your son will have to make his own choices as the types of friendships he wants to have. But you, as parents, can help him make the right choices and offer emotional support for the difficult times he will experience.