Dear Your Teen:
How do you recommend dealing with a parent who spends a lot of time and effort engineering social situations and uses the other kids in the friend group as pawns? I can’t imagine having the time, energy or desire to do this, but I know someone who has made an art form out of it. My teenager has been both the beneficiary and the collateral damage of her efforts, but either way, it’s frustrating.
Navigating social situations and friend groups can be challenging for both parents and kids alike, although the types of challenges can differ, depending on your child’s age and developmental level. Without knowing the specifics of the situation you are dealing with, I can offer some general advice that can help you to address your concerns. Here are some ideas for you.
1. View the situation from her perspective
I can definitely imagine how frustrating this situation is. It is clear that you have concerns about the way this parent’s actions affect the children in your child’s friend circle. While the parent’s motivations may seem nefarious, one first step that can help is to view the situation from this parent’s perspective—in other words, see the situation through her eyes (I don’t know if this is a mother or father, but will use female pronouns). My guess would be that from her point of view, she is not strategizing or using kids as pawns. Perhaps she is fearful that her child will be left out. Perhaps she feels anxious and then is behaving in a “controlling” way. There are many possibilities. By having a sense of this mother’s perspective, it will help to lessen the intensity of your own feelings about the situation and allow you to deal directly with her if that is what is called for.
2. Talk to her about a specific concern
The next step is to decide how to approach the parent. Again there are many possibilities, and it depends on the specific situation, and if you are addressing her on your own or with other parents. If you are looking for long-term change in this situation, I would not advise you to address her overall behavior toward the group that you described. She is likely to become defensive and it is unlikely her behavior would change. Instead, I would recommend that you identify a situation that directly impacted your child, and a specific behavior that the mother did that you are concerned about. You can then bring that specific concern to her for discussion with the goal of finding a resolution. During this conversation you should talk to her about how her behavior impacted your child and yourself, including emotionally.
In this way, you are setting a limit and providing direct feedback to her, as well as engaging her in a discussion that can lead toward a solution. Through this approach, she will be more likely to hear your concern. There will also be increased potential for a long-term change in this parent’s behavior. In addition, by doing this, you increase the likelihood of an ongoing, open dialogue that you can have with this parent when other concerns arise.
Jill Emanuele, Ph.D., is a psychologist with New York City’s Child Mind Institute.