Every parent wants their children to have close friendships — peers they can hang out with, share secrets with, and be just themselves with. Healthy friendships fulfill deep needs within all humans, providing support and comfort. Close relationships enable your children to develop trust, take healthy risks, and give the message that they are “enough.”
Unfortunately, not all friendships form in healthy ways. Some are just the opposite. Toxic and unhealthy, these relationships tear away at your children’s self-esteem until they begin to question who they are and why anyone would want to be their friend in the first place. Researchers have cited the negative impact of these types of friendships for more than 20 years, indicating a negative impact as significant as more overt forms of bullying.1,2,6
Toxic friendships can impact anyone and at any time. Our children are particularly at risk of developing unhealthy relationships as relational aggression (RA) begins to form and take hold. Defined as a nonphysical form of aggression and bullying, relational aggression (RA) targets a person’s friendships, social status, and reputation. Employing many of the strategies highlighted in the toxic friendship definitions below, RA can start in early childhood and continue into adulthood.3
Knowing the types of RA that exist, how it shows up in relationships and what to do about it can help your child avoid and release negative relationships before the aggression can overwhelm their self-esteem.4
Toxic friends can come in all shapes and sizes. Here is a list of the most typical types of toxic friends6 your child may experience:
- The Mean Girl: These friends are nice to you when it is just the two of you. That changes when you get to school or are around a lot of others. Then they are mean and belittling.
- The Double Standard: With this friend, there is a distinct double standard. The friend can have lots of successes in her life, but not you! Your good news is a source of pain for the friend, and she will often lash out, putting your successes down. Or worse, ignoring your accomplishments altogether.
- The Fair-Weather: This relationship is only close when there’s nothing “better” going on for the friend. She’ll keep you around, make plans, but the minute there’s someone she’d rather hang out, you’re left in the cold!
- The Use-and-Abuse: This friend uses you for your abilities, always with the promise of a close friendship. She is your best bud until you’ve served her purpose – whether that is helping with school or introducing her to someone or something else – and then she disappears without a trace.
- The Opportunist: This friend is always looking for something to benefit themselves, and usually at your expense. They don’t honor boundaries and may take anything of yours they want – from clothes to friends to your crush. You are just a tool for them, a way to get the thing they want.
All of these relationships result in the same thing: damage to your child’s self-image, self-esteem, and trust in others. Here are a few tips to help you guide your child away from relational aggression and toxic relationships:
- Recognition: Teach your child to recognize the signs of relational aggression and toxic friendships. It may be challenging to identify them at first. Use the descriptions above as a guide.
- Get Out: If your child is in a toxic friendship, help them end the relationship as soon as possible.
- Rebuild: Help your child develop and build internal resiliency skills. This is particularly needed if relational aggression has occurred for several months or at a high degree of intensity.
- New Friendships: Support your children in cultivating new friendships with children who “get them” and want to build healthy relationships.
- Talk About It: If your child wants to work things out with their friend, that may be okay. Just make sure you speak with them about expectations for friendships, healthy and unhealthy relationships, relational aggression, and when to end the friendship.
- Move Forward: Relationships naturally change over time. If your child’s close friend is treating him or her poorly despite efforts to talk things through, it’s okay for your child to cultivate new friends. Encourage them to move on and release the toxic relationship.
Close friendships can make a huge difference in our lives, providing the safety and partnership we need. For more resources to help your girls develop healthy relationships in late childhood and early adolescence, check out The Girl Guide by Prufrock Press.