When friendships go wrong

October 13th, 2020

It’s one thing to support our teens when they are bullied by people they don’t like. But it can be harder when the person causing the hurt is someone they regard as a friend.

Friendships are incredibly important during the teenage years, helping our teens to connect with other people, have fun, learn social skills, and enjoy a good headspace.

But sometimes friendships take a wrong turn, and leave our teens feeling hurt, confused, angry, humiliated, or left out.

A survey of hundreds of young Australians by ReachOut found that many teens had been upset by bullying-style behaviours from friends. But because it was coming from ‘friends’, teens did not call this behaviour bullying, and they found it hard to deal with.

Spotting a ‘toxic friendship’

When a friendship becomes destructive or harmful, you might notice behaviours such as:

  • Hurtful teasing
  • Insults, threats or put-downs
  • Ugly rumours or gossip
  • Being ignored or left out of things
  • Having embarrassing stories, pics or videos shared without permission.

A toxic friendship might leave teens feeling:

  • Scared, upset, insulted, angry, depressed, or worthless
  • Incredibly reliant on the friend’s approval
  • Afraid to go against the friend’s wishes.

But it’s complicated…

 Some ‘friends’ are deliberately manipulative and cruel, but others may not realise the hurt they are causing. Teens are still learning social skills and empathy, and they can struggle to understand each other’s behaviour, especially online.

Sometimes it’s hard to be clear about which behaviours are OK and not OK. For example, a survey of over 3,000 teens in the U.K. found that two-thirds of teens enjoyed a bit of ‘banter’ with friends – defined as friendly teasing or making fun of someone in a way that’s not meant to offend. And most teens believed there was a big difference between banter and bullying. At the same time, half the teens agreed that bullying was sometimes brushed off as ‘just banter’, and almost half said they’d felt upset or insulted by someone else’s banter at some point. These situations can be tough to navigate.

Even when a friendship is clearly harmful, some teens don’t want to walk away. They might be afraid of conflict, or of losing their other friends – or they might enjoy aspects of the friendship. One study found that girls, in particular, were often reluctant to give up friends who hurt them, because they believed these friends still had good qualities.

What can parents do?

 Check in regularly with your teens about what’s happening in their friendship groups.

  • Remind your teens of what makes a good friend – e.g. someone who looks out for you, cares about you, includes you, and treats you with respect.
  • Encourage your teens to make friends from different places – e.g. sporting clubs, community groups, extended family – so they’re not reliant on one crowd.
  • If you’re worried about a friendship, focus on the behaviour, rather than the person. Instead of saying ‘Your friend Amy is horrible!’, try something like ‘When you hang out with Amy, you come home in a bad mood. Is she doing something to cause that?’
  • Don’t just ask ‘Is your friend bullying you?’ Teens often don’t relate to the word ‘bullying’ when it comes to their friends. You might find it easier to ask ‘Is your friend upsetting you, or making problems for you?’
  • Coach your teens in how to deal with conflict – see these tips from Kids Helpline.
  • Help your teens work out tactics to defuse a hostile situation, such as acting bored, making a joke, changing the subject, or calmly telling the hostile friend to stop what they’re doing.
  • Remind your teens that if they want to confront a friend, it’s usually best to do this face-to-face, privately and calmly, and to focus on changing the behaviour. For example, ‘Maybe you didn’t mean it, but what you said before really upset me. Please don’t say stuff like that again.’
  • Remind your teens that they should not use hurtful behaviours themselves – threats, insults, nasty gossip – even if a friend has provoked them.
  • In most cases, don’t ban the friendship outright, unless you are afraid for someone’s safety.
  • Accept that it may take your teens a while to leave this friendship, and that the friendship may have fun elements too.
  • Remind your teens of their strengths and all the things that make them likeable.
  • Make sure your teens can name people they could talk to about a friendship problem, such as a relative, mentor, teacher, or a counselling service like Kids Helpline, ReachOut, or eheadspace.
  • Encourage your teens to do things that help them feel better, such as exercise, music, spending time with family, or reading a favourite book.

For tips on handling bad friendships, check out ReachOut and Raising Children Network.