Among teenagers, negative relationships are sometimes called ‘toxic friendships’. You might hear the people in them talked about as ‘frenemies’. If you’re worried about the impact of toxic friendships on your child, there are things you can do to help.
What you need to know
Teenage friendships can sometimes turn ‘toxic’, or ‘toxic friendships’ can develop if your child gets in with the ‘wrong crowd’.
Instead of making your child feel good – like he belongs and is accepted – toxic friendships can lead to your child having more negative feelings about himself or others. They’re often characterised by subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) put-downs, manipulation, exclusion and other hurtful behaviour.
Read our article on teenage friendships
for more information on how positive, accepting and supportive friendships help teenagers develop towards adulthood. You’ll also find ideas for helping your child develop friendship skills.
Helping your child avoid toxic friendships
To help your child avoid toxic friendships, you can try talking with your child about what ‘good’ friends are like – they’re the ones who look out for her, care about her, include her in activities and treat her with respect. This will help her work out which peers might be suitable friends.
If there are particular friends you think might be good for your child, try to make the most of his opportunities to socialise with them. For example, you might encourage him to take part in the same hobbies, sports or activities they do.
Encourage your child to have a wide range of friends from a variety of places (such as school, sports or social clubs, family friends and neighbours). This means she’ll have other people to turn to if something goes wrong with a friendship.
When you get to know your child’s friends, you get the chance to quietly observe your child’s social interactions and pick up on any issues. You could encourage your child to have friends over and allow them to have a space in your home.
Talking with your child can also give you the chance to start a conversation about how he’s going with his friends. Listen to him and use open-ended questions. When you keep the lines of communication open, your child is more likely to talk to you about any problems that come up.
As part of your talks, you could let your child know about your own friendship history. This might help her see other options and help her feel understood.
Finally, you can be a role model for forming and maintaining positive relationships – with your own friends, partner and colleagues. Your child will learn from observing relationships where there’s respect, empathy and positive ways of resolving conflict.
When your child feels confident and comfortable with himself, he’s less likely to accept bad treatment from frenemies. You can help your child identify his strengths and find opportunites to praise them. You can also try to promote activities that build his self-esteem and confidence
Helping your child deal with toxic friendships
It’s a good idea to give your child the chance to sort out friendship issues herself before you step in. This can help her learn valuable life skills such as conflict resolution, assertiveness and problem-solving. But when you feel you need to step in, here are some ideas:
- If your child really wants to keep the friendship, help him find ways to change it. Can he identify what’s causing the problems? For example, a friend who’s making a lot of negative comments about your child’s appearance might be getting away with it because your child isn’t clearly saying he doesn’t like it. Encourage your child to tell his friend to stop. Sometimes a bit of assertiveness is all that’s needed to stop unwanted behaviour.
- Sometimes frenemies act in negative ways because they get good reactions. Use our problem-solving steps with your child to work out what the frenemy is getting out of the behaviour. Then you might be able to work out a solution. Using a witty comeback, being assertive, or walking away without comment can change the dynamic.
- If your child is prepared to end the friendship, he needs to decide how to tell the frenemy. Your child might need to say something like, ‘I don’t like the way you gossip about me behind my back. Unless that changes, I can’t be your friend anymore’.
Be prepared for the fall-out from the end of a toxic friendship. The frenemy might try to make life difficult for your child. Watch out for any bullying or harassment – both face to face and online. If this happens, contact your child’s school to work on a solution and talk with your child about this. Support your child by listening to what’s going on, trying to find solutions, and linking her in with support services such as guidance counsellors, if needed.
- Your child might need to find new friends. This can be a daunting task. Encourage your child to list all the other peers he could link up with. For example, does he sit with other students in other classes? Does he have one or two friends in another friendship circle, sporting club or activity outside school? Encourage your child to find ways to hang around with them. This could be sitting together at lunch, working on assignments, or doing some social or sporting activities.
- Find out about clubs at school (drama club, sporting group, chess club and so on) that your child could join. She might be able to find others with shared interests.
- If you can, help encourage new friendships by organising lifts to school, making friends welcome at home, or driving your child to extracurricular activities.
It might help your child to know that many teenage friendships don’t last. They’re a way for him to work out what values and friendship characteristics are important to him, and help him develop appropriate social behaviour and social skills. But they’re not all going to last forever.
Dealing with bad behaviour from toxic friendships
You might feel that your child’s behaviour is being influenced negatively by toxic friendships. If you feel you need to address this, it’s important to focus on the way your child is acting, not on his personality, or the personalities of his friends.
For example, you could say, ‘Whenever you spend time with Josh, you come home angry and upset’. A statement like focuses on what needs to change in the friendship. It’s better than saying, ‘I don’t want you hanging around with Josh anymore’.
There are also ‘positive’ toxic friendships. Your child’s friend treats her well and they have a strong bond, but her friend might be leading your child into antisocial behaviour such as stealing or drinking.
To address this, you could say, ‘When you hang around with Janine, you get into a lot of trouble. If you keep stealing, you could get arrested’. This statement picks up on the consequences of the behaviour, and gives your child the chance to change it. It’s better than saying, ‘I don’t want you hanging around with Janine’.
Things to avoid
It’s best not to confront the other young people involved in bad behaviour, or to call their parents. This might only make things worse for your child. But in some cases – for example, if drugs are involved – you might need to tell the parents or another adult.
Also avoid banning or criticising your child’s friends. This might have the opposite effect and make your child feel even more closely attached to those friends.
If you’re worried about the influence of friends on your child’s behaviour, it might help to know that you influence your child’s long-term decisions, such as career choices, values and morals. Your child’s friends are more likely to influence short-term choices, such as appearance and interests.
Friendship problems and break-ups can sometimes lead to bullying. Bullying within a friendship group can be hard to spot. You can read more in our articles on adolescent bullying
If your child is having ongoing friendship difficulties that are causing significant distress, and aren’t changing despite your child’s best efforts, consider seeking professional advice.
Teenagers sometimes find it helpful to have someone other than a parent to talk to. You could try:
- a school counsellor or other counsellor
- your GP
- a confidential telephone counselling service for young people such as Kids Helpline (1800 551 800).
Video Peer pressure
You might be worried that your child is feeling peer pressure from frenemies. You might also worry that this is having a negative influence on your child’s behaviour.
In this short video, we hear parents’ and teenagers’ perspectives on peer pressure. Teenagers say that they do sometimes feel pressure to be ‘cool’ or be part of a group – but they’re often happy just to do their own thing too. Parents say they try to encourage their children to ‘think for themselves’.