Unhealthy Friendships in Adolescence: How to Know When to Let Go

Teenager with short curly hair and pink shirt looks to side while walking away from two classmates standing togetherMaking and maintaining quality friendships is hard, especially during middle and high school. Although many adolescents long to develop lifelong friends who will be loyal, trustworthy, and supportive, they often struggle during this time to maintain those types of relationships. In fact, many will experience times of confusion, hurt, and betrayal when seemingly good friendships fall apart.

To some extent, the fluidity in relationships is normal during this developmental phase, as adolescence is a time of great change. As teens figure out who they are, what their interests are, and what is important to them, they are likely to gravitate to new and different peers who share their interests and values. However, friendships often change or end because of drama, hurts, betrayals, and outside peer influences. Sometimes the end comes suddenly; other times it comes when good friendships start to become unhealthy.

Often, when the latter happens, peers will try to maintain the friendship long past the point it is healthy for them. Sometimes they don’t recognize the signs of an unhealthy relationship. Other times, they don’t want to see the signs because they don’t want to lose a valued friendship. Either way, staying in an unhealthy friendship can lead to anxiety, depression, stress, and problems at home and school.

It is important for adolescents to be able to identify the signs of an unhealthy relationship and either work to improve things or find a way to get space. Here are some signs a friendship might be becoming unhealthy:

  • There is more drama. Friendships shouldn’t be stressful. If you notice your relationship is full of drama, it might mean it is time to get some space.
  • Your friend is controlling. Adding new people to the mix can cause a little bit friction even in the best friendships. Experiencing some growing pains when this happens is normal. However, a friend who becomes extremely jealous and angry because you are spending time with a new person might not be a good friend to have. Also, if a friend tries to tell you who you can and cannot hang out with, it is probably a sign you are in an unhealthy relationship. While friendships take work and sometimes need adjustments, make sure your friends are supportive and understanding of your growth, both personally and socially.
  • They get mad at you easily and a lot. Middle and high school is full of drama. When I worked in middle school, I constantly observed good friends bickering over various issues. However, if you notice your friend is always mad at you or gets mad easily and reacts in an extreme way (ignoring you for hours or days for no apparent reason), it might be a sign it is time to get some space. Healthy friendships are characterized by trust and good communication. This means you can talk to each other openly about your feelings and are both willing to work out any potential problems.
  • They are pressuring you to do things you don’t want to do or that you know will get you in trouble. Healthy friendships are characterized by respect and support. Good friends support you and your boundaries, even if they differ from theirs. A good friend should never pressure you to do something you are uncomfortable with or that they know will get you in trouble.
  • They are mean to you. I have heard some teens suggest real friends tell the truth, even when it hurts. While it is important to be open and honest in a friendship, there is big a difference between sharing your opinion and feelings and saying something that is intentionally hurtful. A friend should never make fun of you, even in jest, or call you names. Many of the teens I work with have shared that put-downs or negative statements, often played off as jokes, from friends are significantly more painful than those from other peers. Good friends are honest in a gentle and kind way and are conscientious of your feelings.
  • They are mean to others. Zebras don’t change their stripes. Sometimes, the best way to know if a relationship is going to be unhealthy or healthy is to observe how the other person treats and has treated other friends. If a person is constantly wrapped up in drama or has had a lot of fallings-out with others, chances are your friendship will have the same outcome.

Many adolescents will stay in unhealthy friendships until they break. Unfortunately, a lot of pain and damage is usually already done when it gets to this point.

While many adolescents can see these red flags, some are unsure what to do when a once-healthy friendship turns unhealthy. Many adolescents will stay in unhealthy friendships until they break. Unfortunately, a lot of pain and damage is usually already done when it gets to this point. However, there are methods to end an unhealthy relationship in a way that preserves everybody’s feelings.

Here are some strategies for ending an unhealthy friendship:

  • Begin spending more time apart. One of the best ways to end an unhealthy relationship is to begin gravitating toward healthy relationships and limiting your time with friends you feel have become unhealthy. If you do this when you start noticing the signs, you can do it gradually and it doesn’t have to be a dramatic break. When they invite you places, politely decline. You can say you have other plans, need to do homework, or blame a parent for telling you no. Most parents are more than okay with being the “bad guy,” especially when it means steering away from an unhealthy friendship.
  • Get space. This can be difficult when you see the person every day in school. However, there are creative ways to get space. If you see this person a lot in the halls, you can change the way you walk to class. You can ask to change your seat so you have space in class. You can stay away from your “normal” hangouts until things settle. But remember that getting space does not have to be synonymous with avoidance and ignoring. Unless there is some compelling reason not to be, continue to be polite and acknowledge the other person. Flat-out ignoring them may create drama. If they approach you about your change in behavior toward them, it is probably best to be honest. If it feels unsafe or uncomfortable to have that conversation alone, you can always ask your guidance counselor to support you.
  • Get advice. When in doubt, seek support from a therapist or other trusted adult. A therapist is a great resource and can help you not only process your feelings about your changing friendship, but help you identify strategies to handle the situation.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Katelyn Alcamo, LCMFT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

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  • Leave a Comment
  • cassidy

    June 15th, 2017 at 8:57 AM

    I don’t know how it is with boys but I know with my girls it has always been a matter of treading a very fine line between good friend and bad, and if I thought that the person wasn’t a good fit for them I would usually just have to bite my tongue and let them make that decision on their own. Of course there were times that I had to speak up, but you know, my girls usually had to learn the hard way, and that normally meant getting hurt a time or two before realizing that there are better people out there who won’t treat you that way.

  • Lola

    June 17th, 2017 at 9:18 AM

    For some reason adolescent girls are the absolute worst and I used to be one myself.

  • Robbie B

    June 19th, 2017 at 2:17 PM

    As an adult it can still be a challenge to know when is the time to hang on and when is the right time to let go. And if it is hard for those of us who are older I can only imagine how hard it is for a child to have to make that same kind of decision! My parents always did those kinds of things for me and while I may have resented it at the time now I know that they were only looking out for my best interests.

  • Jan A

    June 23rd, 2017 at 10:44 AM

    As an adult, I also feel like Robbie, that it is hard for me as well. I feel in many ways I got stuck in “teenager mode” due to some horrific traumas as a child. I am currently going through the difficult process of deciding whether to let a friendship go. I am 57 an for the last 7 years finally had a close friend that I would call “best” friend, for the first time since high school. I look through these “signs” you have listed and can see so much of our relationship in them. She has pulled away from me for being too honest with her when she felt she needed sympathy only. I have tried to apologize repeatedly for not being sensitive enough, but initially I only dug in my heels. She has chosen to refuse to talk to me directly about it in spite of my requests that we talk it out. I know I can see some very unhealthy things about continuing a close relationship with her, but it still makes me cry to think I am losing her as a best friend. Makes me want to withdraw from being close to anyone again. And I am an adult! So much harder when it involves teenagers. :(

  • Brad

    September 13th, 2022 at 11:46 AM

    I feel like none of this stuff really matters to me.

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