Helping Kids Navigate Toxic Friendships

How to help kids make good, positive friendships
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Friendships should serve as a positive force in children’s lives, helping to cement a sense of identity and belonging, and instill real-world lessons in sharing, empathy and kindness. Good friends can impart the type of peer pressure that spurs the growth of positive personality characteristics like tenacity and generosity.

But there can be a dark side to childhood friendships. When bullying, gossip or jealousy take hold, a child’s health and happiness can suffer. Here’s how to help kids navigate toxic friendships and seek out the positive, fulfilling friendships we all need.


Early Years

Budding Buds

From playdates to the playground, toddlerhood presents plenty of opportunities to begin teaching 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, a licensed family therapist in Greensboro. “Parents can start these conversations with kids by asking questions about what they think the characteristics of a good friend are and teaching children to display good friendship qualities.” These qualities include kindness, empathy and good listening skills.

When tots find themselves in a friendship tiff, caregivers should first wait to see if kids can work it out for themselves. When kids seem stuck, acknowledge both children in the conflict without taking sides, and calmly ask each child to recount the situation. Encourage the child who feels wronged to ask for what he or she needs. When a playmate can’t break out of a negative pattern, affirm that he may need a break from play and encourage your child to seek out other companions.


Elementary Years

Friend or Foe?

As friendships begin to play a larger role in children’s lives, parents should watch for signs that a friendship is taking a negative toll.

“Children exhibit a range of signs that parents can look for to aid in identifying red flags for negative friendships and bullying,” Clark-Trippodo says. “These signs can include a sudden change in 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 negative, parents can ask a child to think about how that friend makes them feel, and what appeals to them about that person. Assure children that they won’t get in trouble for reporting bullying or toxic behavior, and role-play to practice responding 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

Impact Zone

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

When a friend appears to have a negative influence on a teen, parents can ask nonjudgmental questions to help the teen evaluate the friendship. Practice active listening without forbidding or preventing a child from engaging with the friend. When a teen needs to step back from a negative friendship, introduce her to environments where new friendships can blossom, such as volunteer work, after-school jobs, church or sports teams.

When a once-positive friendship takes a negative turn, encourage teens to try to mend fences by writing a sincere email to express their feelings, says nationally recognized parenting expert and author Susan Kuczmarski. “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 Jacobson is a nationally published health and family journalist and mom of three.