Frenemy or Friend? How to Spot the Signs of Unhealthy Friendship in Kids

Two elementary school friends looking at a book

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Friendships are an important part of a child's life. But not all friendships are created equal nor are all friendships healthy ones. In fact, some friendships can leave your child feeling anxious, stressed out, and confused. Yet, kids often struggle to see the damage these relationships can potentially cause. Even some adults cannot tell if their child's buddy is a friend or frenemy.

"Young kids may not understand what healthy friendships look like or even realize that a friendship is unhealthy," explains Michelle Risser, LISW-S, a mental health therapist. "For older kids, peer pressure, a desire to fit in, friend group alliances, or even social media pressure can contribute to staying in unhealthy social situations."

If you suspect that your child or teen is in an unhealthy friendship, it is important to be able to recognize the signs and know how to intervene. Read on to learn not only why childhood friendships are important but also how you can spot an unhealthy friendship in your child's life. You will even find tips on what you can do if you suspect your child's friendship is taking a turn for the worse.

Why Friendships Are Important

Everyone wants to feel like they belong, especially kids and teens. Having a healthy friendship will help your child feel connected to the world. In fact, studies have shown that healthy friendships have a positive impact on overall health and well-being.

Healthy friendships—both in childhood and in adolescence—also can create an environment where children are able to develop social competencies and build their self-esteem. They also can be a source of emotional support. But kids who do not have childhood friends are nearly three times more likely to have high levels of depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic complaints and two times more likely to have high levels of aggression, hyperactivity, and inattention.

Friendships also are crucial when it comes to building a sense of belonging and moral support. In fact, kids who have a strong circle of friends are less likely to become targets of bullying than kids who are socially isolated.

Having quality friendships can even have protective factors when unhealthy friendships or situations crop up. For instance, one study found that spending more time with friends during adolescence can protect kids from feeling the sting of social exclusion later.

Characteristics of a Healthy Friendship

  • Treat each other as equals
  • Are honest and trustworthy
  • Respect each other's boundaries
  • Celebrate one another's successes
  • Stand up for each other
  • Support other friendships and are inclusive
  • Are real and authentic
  • Refrain from using peer pressure

Signs of an Unhealthy Friendship

Problems arise when friendships are unhealthy. In these situations, the friendship becomes more harmful than it is helpful and can leave your child experiencing a number of conflicting emotions.

"Unhealthy friendships can be very detrimental for kids but are often even more harmful to teens," says Hailey Shafir, LCMHCS, LPCS, LCAS, CCS, a mental health and addiction specialist. "Teenagers begin prioritizing their friendships with peers more during middle and high school, and are more susceptible to bullying, peer pressure, and picking up negative habits and behaviors depending on who they are spending time with. Bad friends can also create a lot of stress and drama for kids and teens."

The key, then, is to be able to spot the signs of an unhealthy friendship and help your child navigate the situation. Here are some signs your child's friendship may be unhealthy.

There Is a Power Imbalance

Healthy friendships involve cooperation and collaboration, but these characteristics are rarely present in an unhealthy friendship. Instead, you are likely to see a friend who likes to be the one in charge and make all the decisions.

These friends may also resort to relational aggression in order to achieve their goals and get what they want. Or, by contrast, they may put little effort into the friendship at all and expect your child to do all of the work.

"Good, healthy friendships are ones that are mutual," says Shafir. "So a friendship that feels one-sided [or has a power imbalance] is often a sign of an unhealthy friendship. For example, if one friend is the only one making an effort to reach out, initiate plans, or provide emotional support, this is often a bad sign."

Features Unkind or Mean Behavior

Sometimes unhealthy friendships will involve mean or unkind behavior. For instance, your child's friend may be overly critical or talk badly about others. They also may laugh and make fun of other people for the way they dress, look, or act. They may even resort to belittling and ridiculing your child in front of other people or exploit their generosity and goodwill.

If you are unsure whether your child's friend is being unkind, take a closer look at how your child acts when the friend is around, says Nikki Smith, M.Ed., NCC, NCSC, CSWC, a nationally certified school counselor and manager of counseling services for a Colorado school. These subtle changes in your child's expressions or behavior may provide more insight than you realize.

"If the friend is constantly poking fun, gossiping, or putting your child down (even in jest) it’s probably a good idea to take another look," Smith says. "Pay attention to your child’s demeanor when [they are] around this friend. Does it change?  Does the friend ever apologize? If not, that could be an indication that this friendship is not mutually beneficial."

Involves Drama

According to Smith, drama is almost always a sign of an unhealthy friendship. In these situations, there always seems to be something dramatic happening. For instance, the friend may share private information, spread rumors, or outright lie to your child. They also may attempt to emotionally manipulate your child or use guilt trips and pouting to get what they want.

"If your child and their friend are always arguing, fighting, or there always seems to be drama between the two of them, [that is a sign of an unhealthy friendship]," Smith says. "Or, if your child’s friend is constantly jealous of their other friends or trying to monopolize your child’s time, it could be an indication that their friendship is unhealthy."

Contains Jealousy and Competitiveness

Jealousy is frequently present in unhealthy friendships. Whether it is envy over a new toy or jealousy over another friend, unhealthy friendships are rarely supportive and encouraging. Instead of trying to celebrate one another's successes, there is often an underlying thread of competitiveness.

"When friends are jealous of others' successes, appearance, belongings, or other friends, this can be a sign of an unhealthy friendship," says Risser.

Involves Social Exclusion or Isolation

Many times, an unhealthy friendship will involve social exclusion or isolation. In other words, your child's friend may demand that your child only spend time with them or that they exclude others from the group.

"One of the most toxic behaviors in social circles is when kids exclude others from the group and persuade others to exclude them as well," says Risser.

And, if your child chooses not to devote all of their time and energy to this friend, they may become angry and may even attempt to isolate your child. This isolation, in turn, can lead to a loss of self-esteem and confidence, impact their grades, and even cause anxiety and depression, Risser explains.

Includes Controlling Behaviors

Sometimes when a child is involved in a controlling, toxic, or one-sided friendship, you will notice changes in your child's self-esteem or confidence. They may suddenly become more reserved and try to hide their gifts or talents. Or, they may seem indecisive and look to the friend before making a decision.

"A change in your child's self-esteem or confidence can be an early warning sign of something going on in your child's friendships and social circles," says Risser.

In these situations, Risser suggests encouraging your child to spend time with supportive friends. Sometimes the best thing your child can do is focus their energy and time on healthier friends, she says.

Involves Rule Breaking

Sometimes kids develop friends with others who are rude to adults, like to take risks, and engage in problem behaviors. Even though your child may not follow along initially, spending a lot of time with kids who break rules or defy authority may not be healthy for your child.

"Friends who often break rules and get in trouble with parents or teachers may influence your child to break rules themselves," says Risser.

Gives You a Bad Vibe

If you feel uncomfortable about your child's friendship, but you cannot put your finger on what is wrong, Smith says to pay attention to those feelings. They could be telling you something that just hasn't come to the surface yet.

"As the parent I think it’s important to trust your gut," she says. "If when that friend is around, you feel uneasy or the little red flags are going up, you should pay attention and explore those feelings further."

What You Can Do to Help

If your child has developed an unhealthy friendship, encourage them to put some space between them and the friend. Reinforce the idea that having a connection with a friend who does not treat them with kindness and respect can cause a lot of stress and pain. But be prepared for some resistance.

Sometimes it is hard for kids to separate themselves from someone they feel connected to. It also may take some time for them to develop other friendships. So be patient. 

"You can directly discuss your concerns about a particular friend—sometimes just helping your child see and name what’s happening can be helpful," says Smith. "However, sometimes you may have to take a more subtle approach by talking to your child about changes you’ve seen in them and discuss how your child should be treated because the head-on approach could also lead to resistance." 

In the meantime, help your child make connections with others. Invite other friends over and encourage your child to try new activities or explore new interests. Eventually, with your help, your child will develop other friendships. Also, try not to beat yourself up if your child has an unhealthy friendship.

"Children and teens are bound to get into some unhealthy friendships in their lives, no matter how much their parents are involved in their social life," says Shafir. "Still, parents can educate their kids about the differences between a good friend and a bad friend, including talking to them about some warning signs or red flags."

How to Prevent Unhealthy Friendships

While there is no fool-proof way to prevent your child from ever encountering an unhealthy friendship, there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood that it happens. Try educating your kids about what it means to be a good friend so that they can more readily identify when someone is not treating them appropriately.

"Talk to your child about the importance of finding friends who make them feel good, who support them, and who build them up," suggests Smith.

You also should model healthy relationships in your own life as well as point your kids toward friends who are supportive, empathetic, and kind. While your child is young, you will have more say in who they have over for a playdate or whose house they go to, but as they get older, you will have less and less say.

"As young children develop, it is definitely a parent’s responsibility to help vet friends because cognitively, young children can’t quite navigate those challenging emotions," says Smith. "However, as children age—especially as they approach pre-teen and teen years—they are unlikely to let you be as much of a player in their friend choices."

For this reason, Smith encourages parents to have ongoing conversations about what healthy friendships look like. While you don't want to evaluate every friend that comes into your child's life, you do want to point out what is healthy and what is unhealthy.

"Starting very young, have those constant conversations about what supportive friends do, how they act, as well as how your child should treat friends," says Smith. "That way, once they are the ones really dictating their friendships, they will have the knowledge, power, and esteem to choose wisely."

A Word From Verywell

If your child is involved in an unhealthy friendship, do what you can to steer them toward healthier relationships and peers. Not only is it detrimental to their overall health and well-being to be in an unhealthy friendship, but it also could lead to problematic behavior or even poor decision-making.

And, if your efforts to help your child build more meaningful and beneficial friendships are not successful, you may want to talk to their pediatrician or a mental health professional for advice. They can advise you on the best way to tackle the situation.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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