Being a good friend and surrounding oneself with good friends is one of the most important life skills we can teach our children. However, as a mother of three, psychotherapist and former school counselor, I’ve realized that helping our children learn how to distinguish healthy friendships from unhealthy or toxic friendships is equally if not more important. 

Many of us grew up in a generation where there was little discussion about toxic friendships, where schools and parents alike had little to no interventions when it came to social dilemmas. Thus, it makes sense why many parents today feel overwhelmed and underprepared when it comes to helping our own children navigate relationship challenges. 

So what’s a parent to do? How does a parent spot signs of toxic friendship? When—or should—a parent intervene? 

What is a toxic friend?

First, it’s important to define what we mean by a ‘toxic friend.’ We call them toxic because the more time you spend with this person or people, the worse and worse you feel—like you ate something rotten. The profile of a toxic friend is someone who is typically described as controlling, exclusive, judgmental and all-consuming. 

Related: Jennifer Lopez is teaching her kids about 'healthy relationships' after reuniting with Ben Affleck

In the good news department, we have made tremendous strides both in our schools and in our homes to increase social awareness and more readily identify potentially harmful and toxic friendships in our children's lives.

Here are some recommended ways to spot the signs of a toxic relationship and determine if and how you should intervene, broken down by age.

Spotting toxic friendships in elementary school 

Most elementary-aged kids have little to no understanding of what a healthy friendship vs. an unhealthy friendship looks or feels like, let alone can delineate between the two. Thus, not only is it important for parents to know what to look for, but it is important that we give our children the tools needed to identify a healthy friendship from a toxic one.

 Signs your elementary-school aged child might be in a toxic friendship:

  • Your child becomes overly concerned about his or her appearance, clothing, favorite things, family, home, etc.
  • Your child becomes hyper focused on one friendship
  • Your child starts to rebel: getting into trouble in school, breaking rules at home or behaving rudely to family members.
  • Your child’s life begins to pivot around pleasing and appeasing their friend
  • Your child begins to complain about going to school or begins to show signs of school avoidance 
  • Your child begins to have emotional outbursts (anger/sadness) or begins to isolate for long periods of time
  • Your child reports that they are being pressured to do things they don’t want to do

When to intervene

Based on the list above, if you believe that your 5- to 11-year-old is in a toxic friendship, it is imperative that you intervene. Especially in the elementary years, children are still very much looking to adults, and specifically their parents, to teach them about friendships and model how to establish healthy boundaries

Not only does this help mitigate the detrimental effects of a toxic friendship, but it also helps to model to our children that their self-worth is worth fighting for. 

How to intervene

While our primal instincts might tell us to insist that our child cut the toxic friend out of their life, switch classes or schools, this is not advisable. Research has shown that demanding the child sever the friendship is rarely effective and from a child’s perspective, dealing with a toxic friend may be less terrifying than having no friends at all. 

Instead, it is important to:

  • Help your child understand what a healthy relationship looks and feels like. There are many resources out there that can help you and your child. One of my go-tos is found at PA Parent Family Alliance 
  • Listen and empathize with your child. Not only does this help them feel heard but it also builds connection.
  • Ask open-ended questions. such as, “What makes you say that?”, “How often do you feel like this?”, “What types of friends make you feel good about yourself?”
  • Build trust with your child. Trust between a parent and a child is the only way real change can happen. Do not reach out to the child’s parent until you have your child's permission. If you have your child’s permission, keep your focus on your observations and concern for your child as opposed to making judgments about the other child.  
  • Consider a playdate. Depending on the severity/duration, ask the child over for a playdate so you can observe the relationship firsthand.
  • Create space between your child and the friendship. Make a playdate with a family friend, encourage them to try an activity where they can meet some new friends, or simply just spend more time as family. Friends will come and go, but our family is with us forever.
  • Talk with your school counselor and administrators. Bringing up your concerns in a confidential manner can help cue in your child’s teachers and learning team to help head off any issues that might happen at school. 

Toxic friendships in middle and high school 

All of the information above is relevant for this age group as well, however, the signs and interventions you will want to take differ due to age and maturity. During the adolescent period, friendship is one of the most important, if not (according to them) the most important thing in their life. 

Their friends begin to be an extension of who they see themselves as and who they aspire to be. However, with the onset of puberty, social media and a host of social pressures, this developmental stage is filled with friendship conundrums. 

Additionally, while it is important for parents to be able to spot a toxic friendship, it is even more important that a child at this stage has the tools to identify it themselves.

Signs your middle-school and high-school aged child might be in a toxic relationship

  • All signs listed above for elementary school children
  • Your child begins to act or dress in ways that either seem out of character or seem inappropriate
  • Your child's friendship is full of drama. Some ups and downs are normal in any friendship, but a toxic relationship is typically marked by extreme ups and extreme downs
  • Your child begins to partake in risk taking behavior such as skipping school, drinking or inappropriate use of technology
  • Your child never wants to invite their friend to your house
  • Your child begins to isolate, is quick to anger or has emotional outbursts for a prolonged period of time
  • Your child begins to obsess over their looks, grades, or being included with one certain friend

How to intervene

Intervention at this age is still needed, but it is imperative that parents do not overstep their bounds. Adolescents need to trust that they can tell their parents they are struggling without worrying that their parents will pick up the phone and take action. 

Many well-meaning parents jump into fix-it mode and try to solve their children's problems (social and academic alike). Unfortunately, not only does this undermine adolescents' sense of self, but it also denies them the ability to build their own internal moral and social compass. 

Research has proven that when parents equip children with the tools to manage and overcome difficulties, it actually leads to the development of more resilient, empathetic, kind and inclusive adults. 

The interventions list for elementary school-age children are still applicable, however the most important interventions for this age include:

  • Help your child understand what a healthy relationship looks and feels like at this age. One of my go-to resources is found at One Love.
  • Listening/empathizing
  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Building trust and connection with your child
  • Limiting social media and other forms of technology 
  • Encouraging joining clubs, outside school activities or volunteer/work opportunities to help them meet a wide range of people

In cases where your child is really struggling, it’s important to seek help from the school counselor and/or an outside therapist, who can serve as an impartial yet important resource for your child to confide in. 

A note from Motherly

Helping your kids navigate friendships can be both tricky and rewarding. The throughline? Modeling what healthy relationships look like, while also empowering them to solve their own friend issues with gentle guidance from you when needed. If you’re concerned about a toxic friendship, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s school counselor or a therapist for additional support.