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When Your Child Has Toxic Friendships: What to Do

A family therapist signs of toxic friendships in kids and what to do if your child has toxic friends.
When Your Child Has Toxic Friendships: What to Do
Updated: August 15, 2023
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Friends are an important part of a kid’s life. They offer support when we face adversity, help us talk through problems, make us laugh, share stories, memories, experiences and so much more. 

As parents, we want our kids to develop genuine connections with others. But what if that best friend doesn’t have your child’s best interest at heart? 

This article helps you figure out whether your child is in a toxic friendship, understand the consequences of unhealthy relationships, how to talk to your teenager about it, and what you can and shouldn’t do to help.

Related: Can I Help My Ten-Year-Old Make Friends?

Signs Your Child’s in a Toxic Friendship

As parents, we know our child’s natural character, demeanor, and personality. We often have a gut instinct about how our kids are doing emotionally, mentally, and physically. If one of your child’s friendships seems unhealthy, don’t ignore that feeling. It’s worth taking the time to find out what’s really going on.

We spoke with Kim Virrueta, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and Associate Professional Clinical Counselor about red flags to look for in toxic relationships. Here are some signs of a toxic friend she advises parents to watch for.

  • Embarrasses your child by putting them down or humiliating them in front of others.
  • Talking badly or gossiping about your child behind their back.
  • Getting other people to go against your child so they don’t want to be friends with them anymore.
  • Acting differently in front of others versus how they act with your child.
  • Getting jealous of your child’s accomplishments, positive attributes, other friends, or family time.
  • Not respecting your child’s personal space or belongings.
  • Controlling what your child can and can’t do.
  • Getting mad at your child if they don’t do what they want.
  • Ignoring what your child is feeling or what they need.
  • Gaslighting friends or telling your child that their hurt is all in their head or isn’t a big deal.

“If your [child’s] friend is doing any of these things, it may be time to talk to them about it or decide to go [their] separate ways,” advises Virrueta.

Issues with Childhood Toxic Friendships 

Toxic friendships among kids can have significant consequences, influencing their self-esteem, behavior, and overall well-being. Understanding these consequences is crucial for parents, caregivers, and educators to provide the necessary guidance and support.

Damage to Self-Esteem and Identity 

Toxic friendships can hurt a child’s self-esteem. Negative comments, constant criticism, comparisons, and manipulative behaviors from a toxic friend can create doubts and insecurities. Children may start to question their worth, abilities, and who they are. They’ll become reliant on external validation and the opinions of others.

Behavioral Changes and Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms 

Children may adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms to navigate the toxic friendship. These may include conforming to their toxic friend’s demands, suppressing their own feelings, or even copying negative behaviors. Consequently, kids could begin to move away from their authentic selves and lose sight of their values and morals.

Emotional Toll and Effects on Mental Well-being 

Middle school girl stands alone at her locker looking sad while bullying point and her and whisper in the distance.
Image source: Getty Images

The emotional toll of a toxic friend’s behavior can contribute to heightened stress, anxiety, and even depression in children. Constant negativity, manipulation, and betrayals can lead to a constant state of distress which can be detrimental to the other areas of a child’s life. This includes academic performance, overall mood, and relationships outside the toxic friendship.

Stunted Social Development and Isolation 

Toxic friendships can prevent a child from experiencing positive social interactions which impacts the child’s ability to develop healthy social skills. Due to the toxic friend’s influence or the child’s reluctance to make new friends, they may become isolated from other peers. This isolation might further exacerbate feelings of loneliness and affect the child’s ability to build meaningful connections.

Tips To Help Your Child Navigate Toxic Friendships 

If you’re noticing that your child’s friendship meets some or all of the signs below, it’s important to talk to your child and help them get out of bad friendships. 

One of the best ways to help a young child to get out of a toxic friendship is to teach them how to set boundaries. Virrueta provided the following tips to help parents:

Model Boundary Setting

Show them what this looks like in your own relationships. When appropriate, you can share with them what the boundary is, how it was crossed, and what you did to communicate your boundary and enforce it. You can also explain the boundaries you see on TV shows and examples from your child’s own friendships.

Encourage Empathy and Different Perspectives

Mother and daughter sit at the kitchen table to discuss boundary settings and how to avoid toxic friendships
Image source: Getty Images

With young children, this can look like asking them how a character might have been feeling in a cartoon or storybook. Then, you can start helping them identify and communicate their own feelings (and those of others) in real-life scenarios. Practicing this skill can help them be a better friend to others and to choose healthier friends.

Help Your Child Practice Self-Advocating

Give them a voice at home. For example, when they disagree with something, welcome their opinion and talk about why they feel the way they do. Encourage and foster their voice so that they will implement this social skill with others.

Discuss Ways to Recognize Toxic Relationships

Talk about these with your child and ask if they have seen or experienced them with peers. You can turn it into a game by placing each one on a 3 x 5 card and having each person take turns telling a made-up story about what that red flag might look like. Have fun with it and be silly!

Children’s Books About Setting Boundaries with Friends 

Virrueta recommended the following books on boundary setting and friendships that parents can read with their preschoolers and young children to help them understand healthy relationships:

Should Parents Get Involved in Their Tweens’ or Teens' Friendship Issues?

As your child enters middle school and high school, their friendship issues may become more complicated.

Although you may want to step in at the moment you think your teen’s friendship is toxic, it may be helpful to give them the opportunity to figure it out themselves. This provides the chance to learn important life skills like problem-solving, setting and managing boundaries, assertiveness, and conflict resolution.

Mother and her two teen daughters sit on the floor of daughters bedroom and discuss toxic friendships
Image source: Getty Images


How To Talk To Your Teen About Frenemies or Bad Friends 

However, if you find your teen isn’t dealing with their friendship issues effectively, you can talk to them about it.

Refrain from confronting your kid’s friend directly as it will make the situation worse for your teen. Not only is it embarrassing for your teen but they now believe you don’t trust that they are capable of dealing with their own issues. 

The main thing to focus on is to help your teen develop life skills to advocate for themselves, recognize harmful behaviors, know how to speak up, set boundaries and deal with unhealthy relationships.

Here are some tips to take to help you approach this sensitive conversation with them.

Choose the Right Time and Place

Timing is essential when initiating a conversation with your teenager. Find a quiet and comfortable setting where you can have an open and uninterrupted dialogue. Choose a time when both you and your teenager are relaxed and able to focus.

Be an Active Listener

Begin the conversation by encouraging your teenager to share their thoughts and feelings. Practice active listening, showing empathy and understanding without interrupting. This sets a positive tone for the conversation and helps your teen feel heard.

Teach About Unhealthy Friendships

Provide information about unhealthy teenage friendships, explaining what they are and how they can negatively impact mental health and well-being. Ask them to think about examples from books, TV shows, movies, and reputable social media sources that they can relate to and that are relevant to their situation.

Encourage Self-Reflection: Guide your teenager to reflect on their relationships and identify any signs of toxicity. Ask open-ended questions like “How do you feel after spending time with this friend?”; “Do you feel supported and valued in this friendship?”; “Are there any behaviors that make you uncomfortable?”

Discuss Warning Signs

Talk about common warning signs of toxic friendships, such as manipulation, constant negativity, lack of support, and controlling behavior. Use relatable examples to help your teenager recognize these signs in their own relationships.

Highlight Boundaries

Emphasize the importance of setting healthy boundaries in friendships. Explain that it’s okay to say no, refuse demands, and not succumb to peer pressure by prioritizing their well-being. Discuss scenarios where boundaries may need to be established, and offer guidance on how to communicate assertively.

Explore Conflict Resolution

Teach your teenager constructive ways to address conflicts with friends. Encourage open communication and problem-solving skills. Share strategies for resolving disagreements without compromising their emotional health.

Empower Decision-Making

Help your teenager make informed decisions about their friendships. Encourage critical thinking by asking questions like: “Do you think this friendship brings out the best in you?” and “Is this friend supportive of your goals and interests?”

Keep the Conversation Open

Reaffirm your willingness to listen and discuss their friendships in the future. Emphasize that your priority is their well-being and happiness.

Benefits of Meaningful Friendships for Kids 

Good friendships play a crucial role in our lives, contributing to our overall well-being and enriching our experiences. Social isolation is associated with an increased likelihood of mortality which means friendships have an impact on our overall longevity and health.

Meaningful connections with others offer numerous benefits including positive effects on mental and emotional health.

Engaging in healthy interactions with friends can help reduce feelings of loneliness, boost self-esteem, and provide a support system during challenging times. 

Good friends help us build resilience, offering a safe space for us to share thoughts and emotions and cope with stress and adversity. They provide opportunities for learning essential life skills such as effective communication, conflict resolution, and empathy.

In addition, healthy friendships help promote personal growth and development. Children who interact with diverse individuals are exposed to new perspectives, cultures, and ideas, broadening their horizons and enhancing their understanding of the world around them. 

Remember that you and your child are not alone in this. Please reach out to your school counselor, a family therapist, and/or your family doctor for further support. They can provide resources and individualized guidance in building healthy friendships and ensuring your family’s well-being.

Ultimately, it’s important to recognize the signs of toxic friendship and know what to do in these circumstances. Talking to your teenager about toxic friends gives them tools to navigate relationships wisely and empowers them to make informed choices about their friendships.

Sources +

Holmes, M. (2022, August 18). Kids Deal With Toxic Friends Too. Here’s What Parents Should Do — And Not Do. HuffPost.

J, H.-L., Tb, S., M, B., T, H., & D, S. (2015, March 1). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Leonard, E. (2020, January 12). Six Ways to Help a Child Who Has a Toxic Friend | Psychology Today.

Mayo Clinic. (2022, January 12). Friendships: Enrich your life and improve your health. Mayo Clinic.

Raising Children Network (Australia). (2018, May 2). “Frenemies” and toxic friendships. Raising Children Network.

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