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QUESTION: My tenth grader is struggling to make friends. Well, she’s not struggling. My husband and I are struggling with the fact that she doesn’t have many friends. We don’t care that she’s not popular, we just don’t want her to be socially isolated. She says she has friends at school (to eat lunch with, walk to class with etc.). But she rarely hangs out with friends outside of school. Thoughts?
ANSWER: It’s difficult to watch your daughter have a social life that looks different than what you want her to have. During adolescence, our children’s primary developmental task is to separate from us parents, meaning that relationships with peers take on more significance. Although peer friendships can often run hot and cold, these relationships can provide your daughter with an important support system to manage all of the changes she is going through during this stage of her life.
I’d like to suggest a few things you might consider doing to address your concerns:
Gather information. Set the stage for your daughter coming to you for help by opening up a conversation with her about her friendships. Ask her, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning she has the perfect amount of friends and wouldn’t change a thing about her friendships to 1 meaning she would like to change everything about her friendships, how she would rate the current state of her friendships. Resist the temptation to chime in with your observations. Wait for her response and validate whatever laments she may have about the difficulty of making and keeping friends. She is still learning about friendships, and what she learns is valuable information she will take with her throughout her life.
In addition to finding out her point of view, in asking this question you are giving your daughter important time and space to reflect. She might not answer you right away or may need time to think about it, which is entirely fine.
If she takes her friendship “temperature” and rates it at a 7 or higher, that is an indication that you will encounter resistance around making any changes in her social life.
If she shares a number which is 6 or lower, you might consider following up with a related series of questions:
What would you change about your friendships? Would you change the number of friends you have? Would you prefer to be closer to the friends you currently have? Would you like to have one best friend or a few close friends? How many times a week (or a month) would you like to hang out with friends outside of school?
All these questions help you better understand what is enough for her.
Separate your own emotions. Remind yourself that how she assesses her friendships is separate from how you may feel or what you may observe. Perhaps you are an extrovert and draw energy from being around others, and she may be an introvert and not need as much social interaction as you.
While we all want what is best for our daughters and want to do our part in helping her become happy and confident, we parents must be careful not to assume what we want for our daughters is the same as what they want. We may also need to remind ourselves that our girls’ social status is not a reflection on ourselves or how good of a parent we are.
Support her in creating and maintaining the friendships she wants. It’s possible that your daughter is maintaining friendships from home, via her phone or electronic device, in which case you may want to encourage a balance between her “virtual” or online friendships and the experiences she will share with friends IRL (in real life). As Catherine Steiner-Adair points out in her book, The Big Disconnect, technology has fundamentally altered the way we interact, and tech is doing more to obscure and confuse rather than contribute helpfully to the connection teens crave. So, any work you do to encourage face-to-face interactions will help your daughter feel more fulfilled in her friendships and learn valuable communication skills.
Ask your daughter to pick out someone she would like to spend more time with and have her decide upon a fun activity for the two of them to do together. Do what you can to support her, whether that means driving her and her friend or perhaps helping pay to make the outing happen.
Since she is still learning how to navigate friendships, you may need to coach her on how to invite someone to join her in a fun activity, how to respond if she gets turned down and how she should respond when she receives an invitation from a friend.
You may also need to address any fears she might have about initiating an invitation to hang out beyond school hours. Talk through different strategies she could use to address whatever anxiety she might have.
If she continues to have trouble making friends at school, you might consider putting your heads together to sign up for an activity outside of school which she is passionate about, whether it’s horseback riding, art lessons or a camp. This might provide her with an opportunity to connect and engage with her peers (from school or from a different school) and feel good about those interactions. If nothing else, you are helping encourage her in spending time doing something she loves, which will fill her up and help her feel confident in ways which friendships might not.
If her friendship “temperature” remains low, or if anxiety or sadness over her friendships interfere with school or family life, you may want to consider enlisting the aid of a teen life coach, a counselor at school or a therapist to provide her with extra support around her friendships and social skills.
Barb Steinberg, LMSW, is a teen life coach and workshop facilitator who transforms the lives of adolescent girls and the adults who care about them through practical strategies, insight, compassion and humor. Learn more at Barb Steinberg Presents.