Dealing with toxic classmates

The negative effects of toxicity among peers, in the classroom, on the playground and online, are now well-documented and illustrated in documentaries and films. Even when toxic behaviour doesn’t lead to the worst-case-scenarios, studies have shown that the stress caused by toxic people can have long-lasting effects*.


But sometimes the toxicity is more subtle than bullying. It could be a friend with low self-esteem putting themselves down at every opportunity; the constant disapproval or overly competitive streak of the student at the neighbouring desk; or a classmate’s regular complaining or negative attitude towards life in general. These types of energies can drain children or cause them to become emotional when they arrive home at the end of the day, without them necessarily understanding what has caused their pain. For sensitive children, this can feel like a constant onslaught.


Parents, caregivers and teachers play a part in building a culture of intolerance towards bullying and toxicity. Schools work hard to reinforce positive values, communicating incidents and working together to solve problems. Parents and teachers whose priority is to foster students’ self-esteem often experience success in raising children who are kind to themselves and to others and who have a positive outlook on life. Making it o.k. to talk about your feelings helps children to bring their problems into focus in order to move through them, and in turn helps them understand themselves in greater depth.


But it is said that ‘Hurt people hurt.’ While parents, teachers and fellow students may have some impact on how children behave towards each other, no-one can really control anyone else’s thoughts, words or actions. Nor can we avoid all toxic people in life! Dealing with toxicity among peers therefore becomes a task of managing our own minds, more than it is about trying to change the behaviours of others. This is about building resilient young people.


Resiliency grows through many experiences:

  • Experiencing problems and challenges and finding ways to overcome them
  • Seeking and obtaining help from others
  • Talking about emotions and experiences in a safe space
  • Being given regular opportunities to express emotions constructively and to think through problems, e.g. through journaling, art therapy, drama and role-play, physical movement and discussion
  • Being taught that there are many points of view and ways to look at a situation – that one person’s reality is not ‘thereality’ and you can choose to think differently
  • Being given opportunities to succeed while learning new skills
  • Feeling there is someone they can always ‘go to’


At home, families can foster resilience to deal with life’s toxic experiences by:

  • Making time at least weekly for family discussions e.g. ‘about our day’
  • Making time daily to ‘touch base’ briefly and be present with each other
  • Practising language to set boundaries with people or deflect their comments or behaviour rather than engage
  • Having one-to-one quiet time and conversations between child and caregiver
  • Practising a reflective or calming activity as a family e.g. family journal, family meditation/mindfulness exercises




*Studies on the effects of toxicity and strategies to help


Building resilience in children

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