Family, Kids & Relationships

How to talk to kids about toxic friendships

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Have you ever felt uneasy about one of your child’s friends or group of friends—or how your child acts around them? It may be time to look for signs of toxic friendships, and teach your child to recognize and handle them too.

Kids, especially tweens and teens, are wired for peer approval and social connections, so it can be hard for them to recognize when it’s time to end an unhealthy friendship.

If you notice your child acting different after spending a lot of time with someone, letting a friend push them around or insult them, changing their appearance or activities to please someone else, or feeling excluded in the social or social media arena, start a conversation about toxic relationships.

Even if you haven’t noticed these signs, you can still help your child know their own worth and focus their energy on people who are going to help nourish their mental and emotional wellbeing. Here’s some suggested language to have that convo with kids!

Assess the situation

“Do you feel like all of your friends respect you for who you are? Are there any friends that make you feel uncomfortable or stressed out?

“Friends are a wonderful thing, but sometimes a certain friend or group of friends can actually be bad for your health. That’s what we call a toxic friendship, because it makes you feel worse and worse as you spend more time together.”

Go over the warning signs

“In a toxic friendship, a friend might:

  • Say manipulative things like “I won’t be your friend anymore if…”
  • Insult you or treat you like you’re less worthy
  • Exclude you or others to make you/them feel bad or jealous
  • Talk a lot about themselves but not listen or ask questions about you
  • Pressure you into doing things you don’t want to do
  • Try to turn you against or cut you off from other friends
  • Not respect your wishes and your boundaries

If you notice any of these warning signs, you could be in a toxic friendship—even if this same friend is fun and supportive at other times.

Can you think of any other warning signs?”

Explain what a healthy friendship looks like

“In a healthy friendship, a friend should:

  • Treat you as an equal
  • Respect your body, your appearance, and your abilities
  • Listen when you voice concerns
  • Be happy for you when you are happy
  • Understand that you have other relationships and activities that are important to you
  • Apologize genuinely if they’ve hurt you

Of course we’re all working on the skills of being a good friend, and no one’s perfect! But these are healthy expectations to aim for.

What else would you expect from a good friend?”

Practice what to say

“If you’re feeling mistreated, it’s important to tell your friend how you feel. Otherwise the relationship won’t have a chance at getting better.

Here are some things you could say:

  • ‘I didn’t feel so great after our conversation. Can we talk about what you meant?’
  • ‘I was wondering why you didn’t invite me to X. You can be honest with me, I’d rather know what happened instead of making up reasons in my head.’
  • ‘I don’t like being bossed around. I’ll make my own decision when I’m ready.’
  • ‘I don’t want to gossip. Can we play X instead?’

You can always practice these on me or in the mirror, or write out what you want to say before you say it.

What are some other ways you could speak your mind with a friend if something is bothering you? Try to make them ‘I’ statements instead of directly blaming the other person.”

Know when to let go

“If you don’t feel safe talking honestly with your friend, or if you’ve tried and things still haven’t gotten better, it may just not be a healthy relationship for you.

If being with this person is causing you to feel bad about yourself, or makes you really uncomfortable a lot of the time, the friendship is probably not worth it.

Think about what kind of friend would make you feel happy, supported, respected, and like you’re free to be yourself. And if this friend is not that person, then it’s okay to part ways and focus on things and people that are healthier for YOU.”

Give them tools

“So if you’ve decided you don’t want to be friends anymore or you want to limit the time you spend together, what do you do?

It’s important to part ways or set boundaries in a kind way. When you’re giving a reason for needing to spend less time together, make it about you, not them—use those ‘I’ statements again. You can even tell them something positive that you do appreciate about them, so that it ends on a respectful note. Want to write down some ideas?

If they try to add more drama instead of letting you end it peacefully, you are free to just walk away at that point.

It’s okay to talk about any negative feelings you may have with me or someone else you trust, but ‘getting revenge’ or gossiping about the person behind their back is only going to continue the toxic relationship in a different way.”

Come up with a plan

“You’ll probably still run into your ex-friend, though, so you’ll need a plan of what to do when you see them again.

Can you ask another friend in advance to eat lunch with you? Or linger with a teacher or teammate at the time you usually see them in the hallway? Can you stay off of social media for a few weeks to avoid more drama?

It’s okay to keep your distance for a while—without being mean. When you do talk at some point in the future, just remember to keep it kind and respectful, and it’ll eventually get less awkward.

Think about what you DO really want to spend your time on and start doing more of that. Like joining a new club or volunteer project, which could help you focus on something else and also meet new people who you might get along with.

Do you want to run through your plan with me?”

Offer support

“I know this is really hard, because I’ve been through it too. When I was in X grade, I had to stop hanging out with this friend because she was always saying … and pressuring me to …

You can always talk to me about friend problems and I’ll help in whatever way I can. I promise not to get mad or judge you for your choices. No matter what happens, I’m here for you, okay?

Even if you try to end things but the drama keeps finding you, I’m still here to support you. Think of me as your advisor, you can bounce any ideas or problems off of me.

Who else do you feel like you can talk to and trust with this stuff?”

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.