Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Teenagers and toxic friendships

Below is a shortened, adapted extract from the section on negative friendships in The Teenage Guide to Friends, reproduced here by permission of Walker Books. Note that I have missed lots of detail out. For the full discussion and detail, do take a look at the book!

The book begins by talking about what friends are for – in evolutionary and psychological terms – and what they are. But, of course, friendships often cause problems and this extract introduces some of those.


Not all friendships are positive or healthy and it’s important to know the signs of those that aren’t.

One-way friendships

Good friendships are “two-way”. A one-way friendship is where one person gives everything and gets nothing. Some people love “giving”, so they might be happy looking after the other person all the time. Generosity makes the giver feel good, too.

Even so, we need to be careful about such one-sided friendships. Although the “giver” might be genuinely happy to do all the giving, the person receiving the care and attention may soon feel inadequate because they can’t give back. This can be a fragile sort of friendship.

If you’re in a friendship where you’re doing all the giving, are you OK with this? And do you think your friend is happy? Of course, a friend going through a really bad patch does need help and may not be able to give it back. We obviously want to be patient with friends in need. But it’s a situation which doesn’t work for too long. At some point, either the person receiving the help is likely to feel bad about not being able to repay this kindness or the person giving all the help is going to need something in return. It may be possible to have a long-term unequal friendship but only if both sides are 100% happy with their role and I question whether that’s likely. Good friendships usually need enough equality. The self-esteem of both partners depends on it.

In any friendship, there’ll be times when one person needs more help and support than the other. And good two-way friendships handle this well. The person needing support knows that last month they gave support, so feels OK to accept it. Both friends feel equally valuable and both get a buzz out of helping each other when one is in need. And, really, this is what friendship is: a partnership, to support each other. Good friendship is about enjoying the good times and supporting each other through bad times. That’s why friendship is so important.

Frenemies, fake friends and toxic friendships

Some friendships can be negative for one of the friends. This is not quite the same as a “one-way” friendship. Negative friendships are more complicated and there are many different sorts and different reasons for them. We sometimes call these “toxic” because they have a poisoning effect on the friendship, with one side suffering pain and damage to wellbeing and self-esteem.

Here are some signs that you might be in a toxic relationship:

  • You never quite know whether it’s going to be a good day or a bad day for your friendship.
  • The other person always seems to be in control; you feel manipulated.
  • Your “friend” behaves very differently when other people are around, perhaps ignoring or being mean to you in front of others.
  • Your friend hates it when you spend time with anyone else.
  • You don’t feel comfortable around them and you feel you have to change who you are.
  • Your friend often says nasty, undermining or critical things, whether accidentally or on purpose.
  • Your friend needs constant praise and never praises you back.
  • When you try to explain how you feel, your friend laughs and you can’t seem to make them understand.
  • Your “friend” asks you to do something that makes you uncomfortable but you feel you have to do it.
  • You have to work really hard to gain your friend’s respect and they are always judging you.
  • You know they behave badly but you think you can change them.

No one is perfect. So you can forgive some bad behaviour. Also, I’ll be explaining later some of the reasons why people sometimes behave badly. But, if it goes on too long and is making you feel bad about yourself, consider whether this is really friendship. Friendship is supposed to make people feel good! Enemies are people who make you feel bad. This is why we call this sort of person a “frenemy”: someone you think of as a friend but who behaves like an enemy.

Frenemies can wreck your sense of worth. You might allow such a friendship to continue because you don’t think you’re worth more than that. You are worth more: walk away. There are better people out there to be friends with.

Some things to think about:

When you were reading about negative friendships, did you find yourself thinking of someone who is making your life tough at the moment? Has it helped you to feel better about it or see that it isn’t your fault?

If you think about your friendships, you might start to compare them with each other. I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to do this. Not all friendships have to be brilliant all the time. A friendship that’s not going too well for you now or is causing you upset could change and become a really valuable one later. Try not to make too many judgements unless it seems really obvious or is hurting you.

Extracted and adapted from THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO FRIENDS © 2017 Nicola Morgan.  Published by Walker Books Ltd.

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