How toxic friendships can affect youth mental health

The MIND 24-7 Team | June 13, 2024

Friendships during youth are a crucial aspect of personal development and emotional well-being. But not all friendships are beneficial. Toxic friendships can have significant negative impacts on a young person’s mental health, affecting their self-esteem, stress levels and overall emotional stability. Understanding the signs of toxic friendships and their potential effects is essential for both youth and their caregivers.

Toxic friendship signs and characteristics

1. Manipulation and control

  • In a toxic friendship, one person may try to dominate or control the other, dictating their actions, choices and behaviors.
  • Examples of emotional manipulation include guilt-tripping, emotional blackmail or using personal information to manipulate or harm.

2. Lack of support and respect

  • Unreciprocated effort can be a sign of a toxic relationship. One-sided friendships, in which one person consistently supports the other without receiving the same in return, can become draining and demoralizing.
  • Persistent disrespect, criticism or undermining of one’s feelings and opinions can erode self-esteem.

3. Envy and competition

  • Constant jealousy and competition can create a hostile environment leading to people feeling undervalued and threatened.
  • Friends who sabotage each other’s success or happiness out of envy contribute to a toxic dynamic.

4. Negativity and drama

  • Frequent arguments, drama and conflicts can lead to chronic stress and anxiety.
  • Toxic friends are often described as a “bad influence.” Exposure to negative behaviors, such as encouraging risky activities or unhealthy habits, can have detrimental effects.

Effects on mental health

1. Increased stress and anxiety

  • Constant worry: The unpredictable nature of a toxic friendship can lead to chronic stress and anxiety, as one is always on edge about potential conflicts or manipulative behaviors.
  • Social anxiety: Fear of conflict or betrayal can extend to other social interactions, making it difficult to trust others and form new friendships.

2. Depression

  • Low self-esteem: Persistent criticism, disrespect and emotional manipulation can significantly damage self-esteem, leading to feelings of worthlessness and depression.
  • Isolation: Toxic friendships can cause individuals to withdraw from other social circles, leading to loneliness and further exacerbating depressive symptoms.

3. Emotional exhaustion

  • Mental drain: Constant drama, manipulation and conflict can lead to emotional exhaustion, leaving little energy for other aspects of life, such as academics, hobbies and family.
  • Burnout: Emotional exhaustion can eventually lead to burnout, characterized by feelings of apathy, hopelessness and a lack of motivation.

4. Behavioral changes

  • Risky behaviors: Exposure to negative influences can lead to engagement in risky behaviors, such as substance abuse, which can have long-term health consequences.
  • Aggression or withdrawal: Individuals may become more aggressive as a defense mechanism or withdraw entirely, avoiding social interactions altogether.

How to address toxic relationships

Adults can help lessen the negative impact of and help with toxic friendships by talking to youth about taking these steps:

1. Identify toxicity

  • Self-reflection: Encourage youth to reflect on their friendships and recognize how these relationships make them feel. Persistent feelings of stress, sadness or anxiety are red flags.
  • Feedback: Listening to feedback from trusted individuals, such as family members or close friends, can provide an outside perspective on the friendship’s impact.

2. Set boundaries

  • Establish limits: Teach youth to set and enforce boundaries in their friendships. This includes saying no to manipulative or harmful behaviors and protecting their emotional well-being.
  • Communicate clearly: Encourage open and honest communication about how young people feel and what they need from the friendship.

3. Seek support

  • Talk to a trusted adult: Encourage youth to seek guidance and support from trusted adults who can offer advice and help them navigate the situation. That might be a parent, teacher or counselor.
  • Professional help: Sometimes it’s important to ask for help. In cases of severe emotional distress, professional help from a therapist or counselor can be beneficial.

4. Make changes

  • Evaluate the friendship: Help youth determine whether the friendship is worth maintaining. Sometimes, walking away from a toxic relationship is the best option for their mental health.
  • Foster positive relationships: Encourage youth to form and nurture positive, supportive friendships that contribute to their well-being and personal growth.

[H2] Help youth take steps toward healthy relationships

Toxic friendships can have profound negative effects on the mental health of young people. This can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and behavioral changes. Recognizing the signs of toxic friendships and taking proactive steps to address these unhealthy dynamics is crucial for protecting and promoting mental health. By fostering open communication, setting boundaries and seeking support, youth can navigate their social landscapes more effectively and build healthier, more fulfilling relationships.

If you or your child is having issues with toxic friendships or self-esteem, MIND 24-7 can help. We offer walk-in treatment for mental and behavioral health concerns—24 hours a day, every day of the year, including holidays. All adults and youth are welcome. If you or a loved one needs mental health care, visit one of our convenient locations in the Phoenix area or text/call 1-844-MIND247.