Like any relationship, childhood friendships can be filled with both joys and difficulties. Sometimes, though, it’s tricky to tell everyday troubles apart from real causes of concern when it comes to your kid's friends. To this end, it’s important to know the signs of emotional abuse in your child’s friendships, which can happen at any age.
To begin, consider what emotional abuse means. In general, emotional abuse is an endeavor to control another person through emotional manipulation, according to Psychology Today. Even if there is no physical bullying or hitting involved, these situations can quickly become problematic and damaging. However, trying to spot emotionally abusive relationships from a distance can be difficult, especially when the people involved are children. What counts as playful teasing between kids, and what behaviors are actually destructive? Giving your kids the space and time to navigate relationships on their own, while heading off obvious problem areas, is a tricky balance to strike.
To learn more, Romper spoke with Azmaira H. Maker, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating children and adolescents. As Maker says, "Bullying and emotional abuse can be toxic for any child. As a parent, it is important for us to be vigilant, to explore, and to act quickly to nip it in the bud, as early intervention is prevention." Read on to learn how to spot the signs of emotional abuse in your child's friendships, before they get way out of hand.
1. Your Kid's Desire To Attend School Decreases
Granted, many kids aren't exactly thrilled to get up early for school each morning. But if your kid is being bullied or emotionally abused at school, then they may try to stay away at all costs. Pay attention if your kid makes comments about not liking school, asks to be picked up early, or refuses to attend, as Maker explains. Abusive classmates, even friends, in the classroom may be the culprit.
2. Your Kid Fixates On Pleasing This Friend
Will your child do anything to keep a particular friend happy, even bad behaviors that are typically out of character? "If your child becomes totally obsessed with pleasing this friend, there is a good chance the power balance has shifted and your child is being used," said psychotherapist Mary Jo Rapini in Psychology Today. The other kid is likely on a power trip.
3. Your Kid's Motivation Or School Performance Decreases
Are your kid's grades dropping for no apparent reason? Is your star athlete suddenly careless about attending practice? Bullying in your kid's friend group may be the problem, notes Maker.
4. Conflicts Don't Get Resolved
Disagreements happen in most any relationship, and it's important to handle them and move on. If your kid's friendship is frequently upset by conflict, and there is no movement towards repairing the damage and forming a healthier relationship, then it may be time to make new friends, explains Maker.
5. Your Kid Deals With Social Withdrawal & Isolation
This is a particularly sad sign. But take note if your typically social kid is not being invited to birthdays, social gatherings, and play-dates. "For instance, if you notice that it has been a few weeks and your child has not had a play date, that is a red flag," says Maker. "It is probably the first sign that something is not going well for your child and you want to explore and intervene sooner rather than later." Whether your kid is self-isolating or getting snubbed, take note.
6. Your Kid's Sleep Patterns Changes
Sometimes emotional stress shows up in physical symptoms. Look for changes in your kid's sleep pattern, including difficulty falling asleep, nightmares, disrupted sleep, or even excessive sleep, as Maker explains. These may be the sign of a stressed-out kid.
7. The Friend Lashes Out At Your Kid
How well does the friend deal with disappointment or conflict? In some cases, children who display toxic behavior will lash out at friends whenever something goes wrong, according to Smart Parents. This isn't unusual, though. "Lashing out when we’re upset and blaming others for our distress are completely normal human reactions," said clinical psychologist and parenting expert Laura Markham in Psychology Today. In time, most kids will learn how to keep tabs on these automatic "fight" responses and stop blaming others for everything, as Markham further explained. Still, it's tough to deal with someone who has a hair trigger, no matter the age. If your kid becomes a target of frustration whenever something goes awry in the friend's life, it's a potential problem sign.
8. Your Child Displays Negativity About Self And / Or Others
Negative friendships can hamper your kid's self-esteem, and this may show up in what your kid says. Kids who make negative comments about themselves (such as “I’m ugly, I’m stupid. Everyone hates me.”) may be dealing with a harmful friendship, says Maker. If your kid starts displaying these negative signs, pay attention.
9. Your Kid Shows More Opposition And Defiance
Sometimes other friends and family may come under fire when your kid is stressed out by a frenemy. Dealing with an emotionally abusive friendship may cause an increase in conflicts with peers and family members, notes Maker. If your typically chill kid is on edge with everyone in the household, take note.
10. The Friend Makes Cruel Comments
Sure, playful ribbing has a place in many friendships, but legitimately cruel remarks are on another level. Teaching your kid to ignore insults and fail to provide the desired reaction is one option. "Most teasers are looking for a reaction," said Mary Ann Shaw, Ed.D., author of Your Anxious Child. "If you ignore them or agree with them ['Yes, I know my hair is short'], it won't be fun for them anymore, and they'll stop doing it." But if the comments get too brutal or out of hand, you may want to discuss the matter with teachers or the other parents if possible. (And in some of these cases, communicating with such parents is not possible).
11. Your Kid Wants To Drop This Friend
Sure, it would be wonderful if all kids could just get along and play nice, but that isn't reality. Forcing your kid to be friends with someone they dislike is not kind. "You cannot reward or punish a child into a friendship. You cannot coerce or shame a child into a friendship," said certified parent coach Meghan Leahy in the Edmonton Journal.
If your kid wants to drop a friendship, then there may be a very good reason for this desire. Potentially, the friend is acting like an emotionally abusive jerk, and your kid is over it. In many cases, it's wise to let your kid decide if and when to let a friendship go, whatever the cause.
12. Your Kid Stresses Over The Friendship
Does this friendship seem to bring much more negativity than joy into your kid's life? "Toxic friends stress you out, use you, are unreliable, are overly demanding, and don't give anything back," said Florence Isaacs, author of Toxic Friends/True Friends, in WebMD. Basically? Crappy friends can be exhausting and stressful.
How can you tell if your kid is stressed? Look for signs of increased sadness, anxiety, irritability, or anger, as Maker explains. Sometimes somatic symptoms (such as headaches or stomachaches) may occur. In general, friendships should bring more happiness and comfort to a person's life, whether you're 4 or 94.
13. Your Kid's Appetite Changes
Again, sometimes emotional stresses show up in physical symptoms. As Maker explains, changes in your kid's weight or appetite may point to outside stressors. And such stressors just might include a toxic friendship.
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