Frenemies and toxic friendships: what you need to know
Teenage friendships can sometimes turn ‘toxic’. Or sometimes toxic friendships can develop if your child hangs out with ‘frenemies’ – teenagers who are mean to them.
Instead of making your child feel good – like they belong and are accepted – toxic friendships can lead to your child feeling bad about themselves or others. That’s because frenemies often put people down, manipulate them, leave them out or behave in other mean ways, both face to face and on social media.
Teenagers sometimes need help to avoid, manage or end toxic friendships.
Positive, accepting and supportive teenage friendships are an important part of your child’s journey to adulthood. They can help your child learn important social and emotional skills, like being sensitive to other people’s thoughts, feelings and wellbeing.
Helping pre-teens and teenagers avoid frenemies and 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 friends who look out for your child, care about them, include them in activities and treat them with respect. This will help your child work out which people might be good to hang out with.
It also helps to encourage your child to have a wide range of friends from a variety of places, like school, sports or social clubs, family friends and neighbours. This gives your child other people to turn to if a friendship turns toxic.
Getting to know your child’s friends is important too. This gives you 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 give them space in your home.
You could also try talking with your child about how they’re going with their friends, both face to face and online. Listen to your child and use open-ended questions. When you keep the lines of communication open, your child is more likely to talk with you about any problems that come up.
When you talk, you could describe your own friendship history. If you had friendship difficulties, it might help your child feel that you understand what they’re going through.
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 themselves, they’re less likely to accept bad treatment from frenemies. You can help your child feel this way by encouraging them to focus on their strengths, and praising their strengths yourself. You can also try to get your child interested in activities that build their confidence.
Dealing with frenemies and toxic friendships: how to help pre-teens and teenagers
It’s a good idea to give your child the chance to sort out friendship issues themselves before you step in. This can help your child learn valuable life skills like conflict resolution, assertiveness and problem-solving. But when you feel you need to step in, here are some ideas.
Changing toxic friendships
If your child really wants to keep the friendship, help them find ways to change it.
For example, can your child work out what’s causing the problems? It might be that a friend who makes a lot of negative comments about your child’s appearance gets away with it because your child isn’t clearly saying they don’t like it. Encourage your child to tell their friend to stop making these comments. Your child could practise what to say by role-playing the conversation with you.
Sometimes frenemies act in negative ways because they get good reactions. You can 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.
Ending toxic friendships
If your child is prepared to end the friendship, they need 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 harassment, bullying or cyberbullying. If this happens, contact the school or organisation where the bullying is happening, and support your child at home.
Finding new friends
Your child might need to find new friends:
- Encourage your child to list all the other peers they could link up with. For example, does your child sit with other students in class? Do they have friends in another friendship circle, sporting club or activity outside school?
- Encourage your child to find ways to spend time with these other peers. This could be sitting together at lunch, working on assignments, or doing some social or sporting activities.
- Find out about clubs at school – for example, drama, sports , chess and so on. Your child might be able to find others with shared interests.
- If you can, encourage new friendships by organising lifts to school, making friends welcome at home, or driving your child to extracurricular activities.
It might take time for your child to find a new group of friends, and they might find this process stressful. Your child might feel less alone if you support them and are ready to talk whenever they need to.
It might help your child to know that many teenage friendships don’t last. Your child might hang out with them for a while, but they’ll find people they have more in common with in the future.
Dealing with bad behaviour from toxic friendships
You might feel that your child’s behaviour is being influenced negatively by frenemies or toxic friendships. If you feel you need to address this, it’s important to focus on the way your child is acting, not on their personality, or the personalities of their friends.
For example, you could say, ‘Whenever you spend time with Josh, you come home angry and upset’. A statement like this 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 them well and they have a strong bond, but the friend might be leading your child into antisocial behaviour like 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’.
What not to do with toxic friendships
It’s best not to confront the other young people involved or to call their parents. This might only make things worse for your child.
In some cases – for example, if drugs are involved – you might need to tell the parents or another adult. If the behaviour is happening at school or relates to school-based friendships, it’s best to speak to school staff.
Also avoid banning or criticising your child’s friends. This might 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, like career choices, values and morals. Your child’s friends are more likely to influence short-term choices, like appearance and interests.
Getting help for toxic friendships and frenemies
If your child is having ongoing friendship difficulties that are really upsetting them 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, like Kids Helpline – phone 1800 551 800.