Is Your Child in a Toxic Friendship?

Seven strategies to help a child who may be trapped in an unhealthy friendship.

Posted Jul 20, 2018

Late-night tears, shrinking self-confidence, disinterest in previously cherished activities, and statements like, “I hate myself” and “I can't do anything right,” are signs your child may be involved in a toxic friendship

Children who act toxic are often referred to as bullies, and are frequently stereotyped as overtly aggressive. Yet in reality, these children can be discreet about the psychological war they wage. Sweet to their victim in the presence of adults and teachers, they may wait patiently to do their dirty work behind closed doors. 

This dynamic is frequently replicated within the friendship. Initially, the child who has toxic tendencies is kind to their friend, which instills a sense of trust. Soon, his or her comments become degrading and biting, leaving the friend stunned, hurt, and convinced they are the problem. So, the friend grovels and succumbs to the toxicity, desperate to be viewed favorably again, which compromises their self-esteem

An equally toxic tactic a child utilizes involves social control. They plan a social activity, excluding one friend, and brag about the event on social media or at school, delighting in the fact that the friend is now aware she was not included. Other children tend to go along with this because they don't want to be the next person excluded from the group if they disagree. At the social gathering, the child talks about the excluded friend behind her back, aligning her own friends against her. 

It's difficult to believe a child is capable of such manipulation, but as a child therapist, I have witnessed this scenario for years. Good-natured children are emotionally dismantled, while an egocentric child jockeys to gain control over the social scene.

Of course, the child with toxic ways is not completely aware of what they are doing. They feel small and insecure so they compensate with narcissism, vanity, a victim mentality, and attempts to exile the child that threatens their fragile self-esteem—the child with a deep emotional constitution. 

People who purposely utilize toxic means to sabotage someone who threatens their self-esteem usually lack sincere remorse and empathy. Ironically, these are the qualities that they exploit in their friend. Because the friend has a conscience and has empathy, they absorb the attacks on their character and accept the blame. Convinced they are deserving of the mistreatment, they remain in the friendship. 

What can parents do? The following tips can help if you suspect your child is involved in a toxic friendship:

  1. Attempt to capture the toxicity of the friend’s disparaging comments. (Toxic comments attack a person’s character or are degrading.) 
  2. Discreetly monitor communications and social media. The other child will attempt to be sly about their antics. 
  3. Ask your child, “Would you ever do that to anybody?” If your child’s answer is “no,” their friend probably has toxic ways. Highlight this for your child.
  4. Help your child get space. Provide your child with multiple outlets to establish friendships in different social circles, so they are not dependent on the child with toxic tendencies for social activities.
  5. Do not confront the other child’s parents unless there is plenty of evidence. Children with toxic habits have been excused and enabled. Confrontation may make your child’s situation worse. 
  6. Empathize with your child. Support your child. Spend as much time with your child as possible. Make them laugh and tell them stories about when they were younger. Remind them of who they are. 
  7. Find an experienced therapist. 

Protect your child, and support her sense of empathy and conscience. Defend her identity. Foster her self-worth by validating her selfless and thoughtful acts. Stay by her side and love her until the end.