Social Struggles

Q: “My daughter, who is in 8th grade, has been calling other girls to invite them over or to go to the movies, but they always say they’re busy. On the rare occasions when these girls actually make plans with her, they usually cancel at the last minute. My daughter just wants to have friends, but when she gets this response she feels rejected, frustrated, and lonely. It’s hard to know how to help a 13-year-old. What can we do?

It is painful to watch girls struggling to make and keep satisfying friendships, especially during the teen and tween years, when ties with peers become so critical to their happiness and self-esteem. In sharing their disappointments, it is easy to feel angry at the peers who hurt them and seem so insensitive, perhaps even cruel. The challenge as parents, however, is to respond to teens and tweens’ social experiences most helpfully and appropriately. Try these steps:

1. Consider how long this has been going on. Does your child have a history of struggling socially, or is this a recent and short-lived episode? Common triggers include transitions to a new grade or school; social upheavals (e.g., being ousted from her usual group); voluntarily distancing herself from previous friends (e.g., because of discomfort with their activities); or a fight with her best friend. Any of these losses can make young teens feel bereft, without an ally or anchor in the often turbulent, unpredictable waters of the adolescent social world. Stresses in teens’ personal or family lives further increase their vulnerability to such social woes.
If, on the other hand, your daughter historically has had too few or too brief friendships, she may have missed out on earlier opportunities to develop the social competence that is needed in early adolescence. In this case, she may need specific help or training to develop age-appropriate skills, such as how best to approach peers, join in groups, initiate conversations, listen and respond to others, and so forth.

2. Assess your daughter’s role. Although your first impulse may be to blame the peers who hurt your daughter, keep in mind that you don’t know what events led up to, contributed to, or even provoked that child’s behavior. Yet it is tricky to elicit such information without your daughter seeing you as accusatory or, worse, traitorous—that is, taking the other girl’s side. To avoid this slippery slope, you might try, “What would Brittany say about the situation?” or “What is Morgan’s perspective?” If you are still in the dark, you might ask your daughter’s teachers or guidance counselor for their observations of her interactions in classrooms, hallways, or the cafeteria—i.e., teens’ natural habitat. If you hear that your daughter’s behavior is somehow ineffective or putting off her peers, you may suggest specific ways she can get along better.

3. Take effective action.
Listen attentively, empathize, and refrain from judging her to encourage your daughter to keep talking about her social experiences. Also, remind her that many teens and tweens struggle socially at various times. You might share stories of when you had similar experiences at her age, and offer hope that even the most awkward or painful situations eventually improve. New kids move in, alliances shift, and established relationships change, all of which can create openings for your daughter to make new friends.

When discussing possible strategies, ask rather than tell your daughter what she might do differently. Tweens resent parents’ highly specific suggestions—for example, “Ashley seems so nice; why don’t you invite her over?’ Similarly, they bristle at any parental efforts to orchestrate a détente between feuding friends. That is because they believe—and rightly so—that parents cannot presume to really know enough about their social lives to be so involved or directive.

Talk with your daughter about her choice of potential friends. Often, girls choose peers they find most appealing (which often translates into fun-loving and popular kids). Yet those who already have plenty of established friendships are usually less open to creating new ties. If your daughter’s invitations are not met with enthusiasm, you might advise her to look instead for girls who are more interested in making new friends.

Encourage her to get more involved in after-school activities, where she can meet classmates with similar interests. For example, signing up for chorus, yearbook, intramural sports, or community service can help lonely kids become part of a group, to feel valued, and make friends. Other girls are more successful at making friends during summer programs, which offer a fresh start away from the stereotypes and reputations that too often follow them in school. When your daughter does make social plans, help by offering rides, open your home for video watching, and stock up on appealing snacks.
For teen girls to feel successful and have esteem, they must feel good about their social lives. So if your daughter continues to struggle socially, check out community agencies, private therapists, and school “lunch bunch” groups for further help. She may just need the gift of time. Besides, all it may take to change your daughter’s social world—along with her mood—is a single email, phone call, or invitation.

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