How to Help Your Teen with Unhealthy Friendships

The look on her face told me everything. My heart sank, not really knowing how to respond when she finally opened up to me about a friendship, one I knew she needed to handle with care and proceed with caution. Unfortunately, we've been here before, and while my "momma bear" wanted so badly to kick in, aiming to protect my daughter's heart, I also realized she needed freedom. Freedom from my meddling and control and the chance to work it out.

Raising teens today is hard, I am not going to lie. It's got its own set of challenges. It's easy to see that this current generation is under attack on so many fronts, from the identity crisis to the constant immersion of information at their fingertips, thanks to smartphones. All the while, they are learning to navigate this world and understand relationships while forming opinions of their own.

Needless to say, our teens need healthy relationships. They may have matured from the parent-led playdates to now choosing their own friends, but make no mistake about it, they still need loving guidance. They need to learn how to choose friends wisely and look for characteristics of a true friend, all the while recognizing signs of an unhealthy friendship.

As parents, there are ways we can support our teens as they navigate friendships. We can start by slowly pulling away and letting them take the lead, trusting them, and trusting their Creator. Then we can let our teens know we are readily available whenever they want to share their hearts or discuss a friendship.

What Does the Bible Say about Friendships?

The book of Proverbs is full of wisdom and is a great place for teens to start when learning about relationships, especially friendships. Here are some beautiful verses to direct them to when they need some reminders of what God says about friendship.

Sweet friendships refresh the soul and awaken our hearts with joy, for good friends are like the anointing oil that yields the fragrant incense of God's presence. Proverbs 27:9 (TPT)

This is a favorite Bible verse of mine about friendships because it is pretty clear on the purpose of a friendship. It is to draw us closer together while drawing us close to God. Teens need friends that love Jesus. It helps them stay accountable and grow in their faith. Friendships are meant to lift us up, refresh our souls, and allow us to experience joy. What a beautiful blessing God gives us through the gift of a friend. We must remind our teens of that.

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity. Proverbs 17:17

Another sweet reminder that a good friend will love through the good and bad times. The triumphs and the trails. They are loyal and dependable because they care deeply for others. Let your teen know they need friends (and need to be a friend) that will step in to offer condolences or celebrate with them.

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

Good friends make us better people. Sharing with your teen that friends influence us in either good or bad ways is crucial. They need to understand that friends shape their life, and the more they connect and hang out with certain friends, the more they begin to take on some of their characteristics and qualities.

What Are the Qualities of a Good Friend?

Matthew 7:12 is the basic "Golden Rule." Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In order to understand healthy and unhealthy friendships, we must help our teens look for qualities of a good friend first. Ask them what they look for in a friend. Then help them understand that true friendships are indeed rare. As friends come and go in and out of their lives, they will notice that some friends will prove more special and stand out while others may fizzle out. Some bring joy, while others bring pain. This is all a growing process, but as they search for friends, remind them to look for certain qualities.

A True Friend Is:

Trustworthy. This friend knows the importance of attaining trust. Building trust is essential to keeping a friendship going strong. Each friend must feel free and confident to share what's on their heart without feeling judged or that what is said will be shared elsewhere. If trust is broken, it is sometimes hard to regain and, in some cases, makes a friendship fall apart.

Respectful. This friend takes time to listen. They are also open and speak honestly. Their care is demonstrated when they remember special occasions or when a friend is enduring a hard time, and they reach out in love. At the same time, they honor their friend's time with others and don't show jealousy.

Loving. This friend lives out the Proverbs 17:17 verse as they love deeply. With a thoughtful text, heartwarming hug, or simple nod of understanding, this friend cares. Their actions show it. But, friendship should be reciprocal, and a friend that is constantly loving and pouring out with nothing in return can damage a friendship. A one-sided friendship hurts everyone.

Forgiving. This friend understands that forgiveness is key. Relationships are brought together by two people, two flawed people. Each brings in their own personalities and preferences, so disagreements and arguments are bound to happen. This friend realizes that and tries to seek forgiveness. A simple apology goes a long way. However, when forgiveness is not freely given, it can often lead to hurt and even an end to a friendship.

Loyal. This friend shows support no matter what. They pledge to stick by their friend through thick or thin. They are the friend you can always count on. When issues arise, they are usually impartial and don't take sides. They also know how to create boundaries and generally follow the rules. They don't seek to get into trouble and try to warn others to do the same. These are good friends for our teens to have, but this is a very mature quality and a rare find.

Fun. This friend brings in the laughter and knows how to have a good time. They know how to draw everyone together and make others smile, seeing the lighter side of life. Teens need a friend that helps them see joy in every situation. But, there must be a balance because if this friend feels they are the only ones bringing joy, they may retreat, bringing tension to the friendship.

Letting our teens know that God brings friends into their lives for a purpose will help them understand if they want good friends, they must first be one. They will also learn that by seeking God first, they gain wisdom on how to handle unhealthy friendships. Sometimes friends come into their lives to help them learn about themselves or more about God, making them lean in and trust Him.

Common Friendship Problems:

Every teen will come across some issues in their friendships. Below are a few common problems and how you can coax your teen to handle them with grace and space. Grace allows them to extend forgiveness and show love and kindness, while space allows them to create boundaries and step back to re-evaluate as needed.

When a friend moves away but wants to maintain a long-distance friendship.

It's difficult to maintain a long-distance relationship, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. It can be fun to be pen pals and exchange letters, texts, and pictures. If you both agree to keep in touch, then do so, but if it becomes one-sided or too difficult to maintain, it's also okay to step away and create space. Just be mindful not to upset this friend with an abrupt stop of communication. Ghosting is not a way to treat a friend. Simply explain to them how you feel. Honesty is always important.

When a friend becomes jealous of another friend.

You have probably heard the term "three is a crowd." The reason for this statement is that someone usually feels left out. Introducing a friend to another friend can be intimidating and concerning at best, wondering if they will get along. However, if a friend becomes jealous over another friend, it's best to talk to that friend one-to-one and seek to understand why they feel that way. It could be an easy solution by making sure they feel included. But if it continues and the friend still shows signs of jealousy while around your other friend, making you or your other friends uncomfortable, you may need to set a boundary with that friend. A friend should never get jealous of you having other friends.

When a friend makes a bad decision or is harming themselves.

While you may want to keep your friend's secret safe with you, it is also important to keep your friend safe. If they are doing something harmful, it is wise to confine in a trusted adult to seek help. If it upsets your friend, inform them that you reached out for help because you cared about them and their well-being. Also, be mindful of the decisions this friend is making so you don't slip into the same harmful pattern. If needed, take a step back and pray for this friend to find hope and healing.

When there is no "best friend."

It may feel like everyone has a "best friend," and you are excluded. It can also feel hurtful when you think you had a best friend, and it turns out they don't match that description. Remember that friends are seasonal, and most will come in and out of your life for a brief time; very few stick around for the long haul. You may have a best friend in one season, and they move away or drift apart, and you find yourself with a group of friends in the next season. Just keep in mind that while you connect to some friends more easily than others, enjoy the time you have with those that are in your life right now.

When a friend says hurtful things.

God tells us repetitively throughout Scripture that our words have power. (Proverbs 15:4, Ephesians 4:29, Psalm 141:3) This is most likely why it cuts so deeply when a loved one (a friend) says something hurtful. When this happens, go to that friend with grace, letting them know how their statement hurt you. Sometimes things are said in carelessness or believed to be said in humor, and while that is no excuse, many times, a friend may not even realize they have caused harm. So, talk openly and honestly about how you feel and then extend forgiveness. If the harmful words continue, it may be wise to distance yourself from this friend. Friends are to build each other up and share words of encouragement, not the other way around.

Moving Forward

Supporting our teens in finding meaningful friendships will set them up for seeking healthy relationships for the rest of their life. These years are basically prepping them by learning to lean in and trust their Father and His infinite wisdom. So, while friends may mean everything to them now, as they grow into adulthood, they will see that God loves them and has a perfect order for all of their relationships, including their friendships.

Photo credit: © Getty Images/fizkes

Alicia SearlAlicia Searl is a devotional author, blogger, and speaker that is passionate about pouring out her heart and pointing ladies of all ages back to Jesus. She has an education background and master’s in literacy.  Her favorite people call her Mom, which is why much of her time is spent cheering them on at a softball game or dance class. She is married to her heartthrob (a tall, spiky-haired blond) who can whip up a mean latte. She sips that goodness while writing her heart on a page while her puppy licks her feet. Visit her website at aliciasearl.com and connect with her on Instagram and Facebook.

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