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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”