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Helping Kids Navigate Toxic Friendships

Most often, friendships serve as a positive force in children’s lives, helping to cement a sense of identity and belonging while kids learn real-world lessons in sharing, empathy, and kindness. Friends can impart the type of ‘positive peer pressure’ that spurs the growth of positive personality characteristics, like tenacity and generosity. But there’s a dark side to childhood friendships. When things like bullying, gossip, or jealousy take hold, a child’s health and happiness can suffer. Research from the University of Alabama links jealousy in adolescent friendships to low self-worth, aggression, and loneliness.

Sound familiar? Here’s how to help your kids navigate toxic friendships and seek out the positive, fulfilling friendships we all need.

Early Years: 0 to 5
Budding Buds

From playdates to playgrounds, toddlerhood presents plenty of opportunities to begin teaching your kids about the traits of a good friend. “Parents can encourage their child to develop positive friendships by teaching children at an early age about healthy relationships,” says Josie Clark-Trippodo, MS, NCC, LPC, a licensed family therapist. “Parents can start these conversations with their kids by asking them questions about what they think the characteristics of a good friend are and teaching children to display good friendship qualities,” says Clark-Trippodo. Think kindness, empathy, and good listening skills.

When tots find themselves in a friendship tiff, caregivers should first wait a beat to see if the kids can work it out themselves. Often, a simple, “Are you being a friend?” can encourage children toward more pro-social behavior. When the kids seem stuck, acknowledge both children in the conflict without taking ‘sides’ and calmly ask each child to recount the situation, and encourage the child who feels wronged to ask for what they need. When a playmate can’t break out of a negative pattern, affirm that they may need a break from play and encourage the other child to seek out other companions in the meantime.

Elementary Years: 6 to 12
Friend or Foe?

During the school years, friendships grow in depth and complexity. As friendships begin to play a larger role in kids’ lives, you should watch for signs that a friendship is taking a negative toll on your child. “Children exhibit a range of signs that parents can look for to aid in identifying red flags for negative friendships and bullying,” says Clark-Trippodo. “These signs can include sudden change in [your child’s] behaviors or mood such as isolation, a sudden drop in school performance, defiance, and mood swings.” Children in negative friendships might display negative self-talk (‘I hate myself’ or ‘I’m ugly’) and shy away from leadership roles or activities they once enjoyed.

When a friendship appears to be negative, you can ask your child to think about how that friend makes them feel, and what appeals to your child about that person. Assure your child they won’t ‘get in trouble’ for reporting bullying or toxic behavior, and role-play appropriate responses your child can use in response to negative behaviors with phrases like, “I don’t like it when you boss me around” or, “I don’t want to gossip; let’s play a board game instead.”

Teen Years: 13 to 18
Impact Zone

It’s no secret that a teen’s friends hold majorsway - but parents can still help guide their teen’s good friendship choices, says Clark-Trippodo. “During the early teen years, children are influenced powerfully by peer groups,” she notes. “One of the most important things a parent can do during [their child’s] teen years is to work to keep the lines of communication open between parent and child.” When a friend appears

to have a negative influence on your teen, ask your teen non-judgmental questions to help them evaluate the friendship and practice ‘active listening’ without forbidding or preventing your teen from engaging with that friend.

When your teen needs to step back from a negative friendship, introducing them to environments where new friendships can blossom, such as volunteer work, after-school jobs, church, or sports teams can help new relationships take root. When a once-positive friendship takes a negative turn, encourage your teen to try to mend fences by writing a sincere email note to express their feelings, says nationally-recognized parenting expert and author Susan Kuczmarski, Ed.D. “The written word may work better than verbal conversation, especially if the problem is a serious or deep one. Words online can be read over and over so an apology can be absorbed.”

Malia is a nationally-published health and family journalist, and a mom of three.



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