Avoiding Undesirable Friends

Q: I can really relate to the parent who wrote in last week about her daughter being manipulated by a classmate. My daughter Fraidy* is in a similar situation. Unlike Chavi*, the girl in last week’s column, Fraidy is not a perfectionist, but she has a speech impediment about which she is very self-conscious. She is getting speech therapy and we are working to help her with this problem at home.

However, her lack of self-confidence brings on a desire to spend a lot of time in school with Leah*, the class troublemaker. This girl is popular and adds life to a sometimes boring classroom. My daughter understands, logically, that Leah is not the best girl to have as a friend, but explains that she has been her pal for years and it would be disloyal to drop her. Fraidy also feels sorry for Leah because she does not have the best home situation.

Like Dini* in last week’s column, Leah “bribes” her with nosh and tries to make Fraidy feel that she is her special friend. However, this specialness is “exclusive” and Leah makes it clear that Fraidy should not be friends with anyone else. Leah looks down at most of their classmates and verbalizes what is wrong with all of them. After a while, her cattiness affects how my daughter looks at the other girls. (This, besides all the trouble they get into together!) If my daughter tries to reach out to others, Leah threatens not to be her friend, to tell others Fraidy’s secrets — in short, she uses what we would consider blackmailing tactics.

You mentioned last week that you’d write about ways to address this. What can be done?

A: Trying to extricate someone from an unhealthy relationship is perhaps one of the most difficult human interactive tasks to accomplish. On a more global adult level, we see this on a daily basis as testified by the increase of the divorce rate in American society.

Once a communication pattern in a relationship is formed, it is often difficult to change it. The unhealthy psychological pay-offs that have been nurtured cause both parties to be “stuck” in these unhealthy patterns. We see it when an alcoholic/addict has a partner who is an “enabler” — one who passively allows self-destructive behavior to continue.

If your daughter is agreeable to loosen the tight reins of this relationship, you need to help her plan ways to respond to Leah. You and Fraidy can role-play possible scenarios. Children need to plan in advance how to respond to a class bully or manipulator, to avoid unnecessary agitation and feelings of helplessness.

If Leah says she will only be Fraidy’s friend if their relationship is exclusive, your daughter needs to rehearse her verbal response. It could be something as simple as “I’m really sorry that you feel this way.” She may have to say it numerous times, and practice saying it without emotion, as Leah may then threaten her more and more.

When Leah speaks negatively about classmates, Fraidy can change the subject and ask specific questions about Leah herself, thus giving her the attention she craves. Saying, “This is lashon hara” only brings on additional manipulative responses from such an individual.

Not agreeing to participate in the other girl’s “troublemaking” behavior is often the most difficult task. Classmates encourage peers to engage in such behavior, which can add spice to a normative day. Your daughter needs to work on being appropriately assertive, on refusing to be an accomplice to her misbehavior. This verbal response, too, needs to be role-played in advance.

Hatzlachah in this most worthy endeavor!