We hear many sad stories about young people who were confused by others who pretended to be friendly in order to get their way, but whose actual intent was to get something from them or even to cause them harm. Here are typical examples:
One kindergarten teacher said, ”A few of my students are so charismatic that all the other kids want to be friends with them. Sometimes they will try to control other children by saying that they will only be their friend if they agree not to play with anyone else. I tell my students that real friends don’t try to stop you from having other friends.”
One mother said, “My seven-year-old daughter got into big trouble because a girl she really liked trashed the school bathroom by throwing paper towels into the toilets and sinks. This girl said that, since my daughter was her friend, my daughter had to blame another one of their classmates for making this mess.”
One father said, “My ten-year-old son keeps getting tricked into doing another kid’s homework because he wants so much to be accepted by him.”
One middle school boy said, “Some girls in our school go along with sex because they want to be popular. I feel bad because some guys tell these girls how much they care about them and then make horrible jokes about what sluts they are behind their backs.”
One teacher of a developmentally delayed teen said, “Kids in his neighborhood pretended to be his friends and then persuaded him to steal my cell phone because they told him they needed the money.”
No matter how old or young you are, people who deliberately use the trappings of friendship to get you to lower your boundaries and do what they want can break your heart.
Both children and adults need to know that someone who smiles at you, says kind things to you, does nice things for you, and seems funny might be enjoyable to be with, but that this friendly behavior by itself does not make this person a trustworthy friend.
At the same time, having misunderstandings and crossing boundaries are normal communication problems in important relationships. Also, sometimes people change and friendships that worked for a while stop working.
The reality is that some mistakes are probably unavoidable. You have to be willing to take some risks in order to get to know someone well enough to decide whether or not to keep this person as a friend.
So, how do you tell the difference between someone who is behaving in a way that is likable and someone who is going to be a good bet as a friend?
You have to judge by what a person does not just part of the time, but all of the time, and not just with you, but with everyone, in order to figure out whether or not someone is going to be a friend you can count on.
Here are six questions that you can ask yourself- and teach kids to ask themselves – to help decide whether or not someone is being a good friend.
1. Does this person do things that are important to both of you?
Or, does does this person run hot and cold – acting glad to see you when she or he wants something from you, but getting mad and saying you are a bad friend if you want to do something else?
2. Does this person encourage you to do things that are in your best interests?
Or, does this person try to use your feelings of friendship to pressure you into wasting your time or money, breaking rules, getting into trouble, doing something dangerous, or hurting someone else?
3. Does this person speak and act respectfully towards you no matter who else is around?
Or, does this person sometimes make unkind jokes or ignore you in order to be popular with others?
4. Does this person try to tell the truth, apologize for mistakes, and keep commitments most of the time?
Or, does this person blame others for his or her mistakes, lie, and break promises over and over?
5. Does this person treat others with kindness and respect?
Or, is this person cruel to some people – or nice to their faces and mean behind their backs? Remember that what someone does to someone else, sooner or later, this person is very likely to do to you.
6. Is this person willing to work problems out?
Or, does this person ignore problems and then explode or act ready to give up on the friendship as soon as something goes wrong?
The bottom line is that we all deserve to have healthy relationships in our lives and that healthy relationships take work. No matter how friendly someone acts and no matter how much we might like to be with this person, we need to decide whether this person is behaving in a way that is that is going to make our lives better or worse.
Suppose that you decide that someone you often enjoy is also often not acting like a good friend. Depending on the situation, here are some choices for what you can do:
1. Speak up about the problem in a clear respectful way.
People often don’t see the impact of their behavior on others unless it’s pointed out to them. You can’t know what will happen unless you let this person know that this behavior is not okay with you.
2. Become unavailable.
You can decide to spend your attention and time with someone else. Many shy people do not act that friendly at first, but, once you get past the surface, can be interesting and fun.
3. Pick and choose.
Many people are great to be with at some times and best to avoid at other times. You can decide when to hang out with someone and when not to.
4. End the friendship.
Sometimes the only way to end a friendship is to tell yourself that the friendship is over. Usually just being unavailable works, especially if you’ve tried to solve the problem and that didn’t work. But once in a while, you might need to say something like, “I really appreciate the fun times we’ve had, but I’ve decided that it won’t work for me to stay friends with you. I wish you very well and hope for the best for you, but won’t be spending time with you any more.”
Strong, true friendships make life rich and joyful. They give lasting memories, provide strength and comfort during difficult times, and help both friends to grow and to have fun. They deserve time, attention, and effort. But, that effort should help everyone grow stronger and closer. We can help young people build strong, meaningful friendships by making healthy decisions about who our own friends are and by encouraging them to choose — and to tend — their own friendships kindly and thoughtfully.