Monday, July 30, 2012

When Friends Are Bullies ~ Recogonizing When Your Child is in a Controlling Relationship

While I had my reservations and concerns about this friendship, I did not know how valid those concerns were until well after the fact. Names have been changed to protect the identities of the people involved.

As our children experience the world around outside of the home we create, they will experience a broad range of people and relationships. It's important to be a supportive bystander of these relationships, because they are imperative for helping children develop social skills, healthy attachments and learn about themselves. Not all of these relationships will be healthy. When our child experiences a relationship that is damaging to them in some way, it can be hard to recognize and it can also be difficult to know how best to handle it.

A couple of years ago when my son Aaron was ten, he met a boy from down the street and they became instant friends. It became obvious early on that they would be best friends and were soon inseparable. I will call this boy Parker.

Aaron seemed infatuated with him, and that was fine with me in the beginning. I kept a close eye out, because I felt that level of interest could be bad news. I'm not talking about any suspected romantic tendencies, but I knew my son was impressionable, eager to please, and couldn't stand to not have someone like him.

Parker didn't really have any friends and I thought at first it was because of his torn frumpy clothes, messy hair, occasional knock-me-over body odor and I knew that he was terribly neglected by his mother. His father worked late hours and was rarely around. When he was around, he let the boy do whatever he pleased and often crossed appropriate parental boundaries, which I will touch on later. The stories Parker told me from home were pretty heartbreaking. I was glad he had my son, even if he had nobody else.

After a few months, I began to notice things that bothered me. Whenever we had other boys over and Parker showed up, the other boys would leave. However on occasion, Aaron was able to talk the boys into staying and that's when the real problem made itself clear. Anytime another boy didn't do exactly what Parker wanted, he would begin name calling and insulting them. I was really shocked at some of the things he would say.

The kids would be playing tag football and Parker would get angry if he wasn't given the ball. Suddenly his "friends" were all idiots and morons. When he was with Aaron and a third boy, he would chase the third boy off by berating the other kid.

The other boys would normally call Parker out on his behavior and stick up for themselves but Parker would only become more insulting - he would say that he was only joking and the boys were too sensitive. I heard him tell a boy, "maybe you should go check with your mommy to see if she has your balls!" and other dehumanizing remarks. Anytime another boy became upset over the mean things Parker said, he made them question their feelings and continued making them feel worse, a behavior called "gaslighting." This is a clear indicator of mental and emotional abuse. Because of this, all of the kids avoided Parker like the plague... Except my son.

By the time I realized this dynamic, Aaron and Parker were two peas in a pod. Sometimes Aaron would come home from Parkers upset if he was pushed too far, but he refused to talk to me about it. Like many who are being manipulated by someone they care about, he was protective of his friend. I talked to him frequently about Parker's manipulation tactics but Aaron insisted that he wasn't like that with him.

I knew that if I demanded Aaron not see Parker anymore, it would be unlikely he would listen. He was too enthralled, and I knew that I couldn't watch him all 24 hours of the day. Not only would he see Parker at school and in the neighborhood and I couldn't completely prevent the two from getting together, my disapproval of Parker at this point would only drive my son further from me and closer to his friend. It's a conundrum that many parents of teens and adolescents are familiar with. I also couldn't say a single word about Parker without my son becoming angry and defensive of his friend.

As time went on, I would do my best to make sure Aaron knew he could come to me with any problems he was having. I kept a watchful eye, ear and heart. I knew that my son was being bullied and manipulated by his dear friend but couldn't see it. Parker could be very nasty when he wasn't given his way - he could also be just as rewarding with praise when the person he was controlling did what he asked.

One day, Aaron came in me in distress. He couldn't take it anymore and wanted help out of the relationship. He told me that Parker had taken some of his dads alcohol and would drink it in the mornings before school. He was pressuring Aaron to drink it too, and he didn't want to. He felt it was a matter of time before Parker persuaded him into it. Not only that, but Parker had stolen some of his parents cigarettes and was smoking them, when he was caught by his dad. Aaron was there when Parker was caught, and Parker told his father that Aaron was smoking too. Aaron swore to me he didn't, and felt deeply betrayed that Parker would lie on him and try to get him into trouble. While Parkers dad didn't believe that Aaron wasn't smoking, he agreed to keep is secret and not tell me, my husband, or even his own wife, as a "favor."

Now not only were red flags being waved, glaring alarm bells were ringing complete with sirens and flashing lights. No way was my kid going back to this boys house. Parker was getting into some pretty dangerous behavior and determined to get my son to participate - but now his father was keeping secrets for him and that terrified me.

I wasn't angry at my son, but he wanted help avoiding Parker and so I agreed to ground him. We made up an excuse and I thought this would be the end of it. My son could be grounded for months and in that time, the boys would grow apart.

I later found out that Aaron had been going to Parkers house in the mornings before school instead of the bus stop, and that Parkers father was giving both boys a ride to school. I was livid to discover this, and grounded Aaron for real this time. I let him know that one of my biggest concerns was whether Parkers dad had sexually abused him. I told him what made me fear this, and that made him open up to me more. I again told Aaron that I was worried Parker could be unbalanced, even dangerous, and what behaviors to watch out for. Violent tendencies, abuse of Parkers little sister at Parkers hands, cruelty to animals were all on the list.

After two weeks of being confined to the house, Aaron finally began to express relief at being away from Parker. And after another month, Parker and his family moved away. It was another two months before my son felt safe enough to divulge everything he knew about his friend. I was horrified to discover that my concern about violent tendencies and cruelty to animals was legitimate.

Four years have passed and my husband and I have counseled our son a great deal. We only found out about the extent of Parkers behavior well after the family had moved away, there was no one we could talk to about getting the boy some help - not that we have any confidence that Parkers parents would have gotten him any if they had believed us. We have been working with our child and teaching him lessons and skills that we hope will make him less vulnerable to manipulation in the future.

Have you ever been in a controlling relationship? Did you need help getting out of it, or were you able to get out of it on your own? How would you help your child if you believed your child was being controlled by one of their friends?

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