Resources / For families

Making Friends or Enemies: What to do about ghosting, bullying, and friends found online

Kid sitting on couch looking at tablet
Brightline Logo Mark Orange
Brightline team

May 1, 2024

Almost all kids — including yours — have an innate desire to feel accepted and to receive some level of validation from others that they fit in.

But making and keeping friends doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Kids can have a hard time doing it for all kinds of reasons — lingering feelings of isolation from the pandemic, low self-esteem, and social anxiety or personality disorders can all affect the ability to make lasting connections with peers. 

So what happens when your child wants friends but keeps getting ghosted? Or if your child’s “friends” are all people online that they’ve never actually met in person? What if you have a child who is bullying other kids?

Let’s navigate these situations together, one at a time.

Your child keeps getting ghosted…now what?

Kids can get ghosted by a friend or someone they’re dating. The disappearing act usually happens out of the blue — suddenly social media messages go unread, your child’s texts aren’t returned, and invitations to birthday parties or sleepovers stop coming.

Being ghosted is bewildering and painful, and leaves the one who got ghosted in a tailspin of unanswered questions. What did I do? What should I have done differently? Don’t they care about me at all? What’s wrong with me?

Ghosting is more about the person doing it than it is about the one getting ghosted — the ghost may simply be unable to handle conflict or a tough conversation. But knowing that doesn’t help your child with the very real feeling of being left behind. And if it happens repeatedly, it can lead to low self-esteem, trust issues, or your child learning that ghosting is an appropriate way to avoid anything they think might be uncomfortable.

If and when this happens to your child, comfort and support them. Continue to teach them the social-emotional skills that help them consider other people’s feelings and hold themselves accountable for their own actions. Encourage them to talk openly about how they feel. And remind them that they are loved, appreciated, and worthy of true friendship.

Your child insists their online connections are their best “friends” what?

The last few generations of kids are digital natives — they’ve never known a time when they didn’t know how to use a smartphone, computer, or tablet. And thanks to the lockdown, there were probably months and months where the only engagement they had with people outside of their immediate family was online. It was not only accepted, it was mandatory.

This increased access, along with the advancement of social media, dating apps, and gaming platforms, makes it understandable that kids now feel more connected than ever to their online friends. They spend a lot of time together, they have similar interests, and they can reach them just about anytime and from anywhere. Still, if your child seems to prefer their online friends over people they have met and can hang out with in person, you might be concerned.

It could help to take a look at the reasons why your child might be engaging with their online friends more than with friends in the “real” world. Are they being bullied at school or judged on their appearance, clothes, or interests? For example, if most of the kids at school aren’t into gaming, but your child is, they might have an easier time bonding with the like-minded community they find online. Or if your child struggles in social settings, doesn’t thrive in the classroom, or doesn’t play sports, it may be harder for them to find friends with similar interests.

So how do you ensure balance between your child’s online friendships and the face-to-face ones? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Get involved with their online activities and who they interact with. Set ground rules for engaging with others and time allowed online to ensure their safety. 

  2. Talk with your child about how to merge their online and offline worlds. Maybe there is a club at school or in the community that focuses on the online activities they enjoy. If not, talk to a school counselor about starting one! 

  3. Encourage your child to use the communication skills they’re building online with peers at school. Step by step, try to build their confidence with in-person interactions and conversations so they start to feel more comfortable with people on both sides of their screen.

Your child is bullying other kids…now what?

Kids who get involved in bullying others aren’t necessarily “bad” kids. They may be looking for attention, trying to fit in with a group of friends who bully other kids, or simply be unaware that their actions are hurtful. Sometimes kids who have been bullied at home or at school learn to become bullies themselves. 

Here are three steps you can take to address bullying behavior in your child:

  1. If you’re told your child is being a bully, talk with them. Ask open-ended questions about how they’re feeling and give them a chance to tell you what happened from their perspective. If you’re met with silence, hostility, or end up even more concerned after the discussion, think about connecting with other parents or resources at school to try to shed light on the situation.

  2. If they own up to the bullying behavior, set expectations and consequences to guide them down a different path. Talk about empathy and what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes, especially when they are hurting, embarrassed, or sad. Give them specific examples of kindness and come up with ways they can be inclusive and accepting of others. And make sure they understand that bullying behavior will result in a privilege being taken away, and that they will have to apologize to the child who was targeted.

  3. Keep communication open and model positive behaviors at home. If they know you are always open to talking whenever they feel angry, left out, or sad, chances are they will come to you before they take it out on someone else. And if they see kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance at home, they’re more likely to exhibit those behaviors, too. 

These friendship topics — and so many others — can be challenging to talk about, especially if your child isn’t opening up to you or you suspect there is a deeper issue causing problems with friends. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your Brightline care team. We can help you get the conversation started, make a plan for positive behavior change, and address any underlying concerns.