Family Almanac: Is one close friend enough for a teen?

October 17, 2011

Q. Our child, the youngest of three, is almost 14 and a great kid who excels at school, plays soccer and basketball and has a few friends as well.

However, her best friend — who is a great kid, too — has other interests, and she also travels with her family quite often. When that happens, our daughter just lies around the house, watching TV or using her computer, but she seldom calls her other friends or tries to get together with them. And if they invite her to do something, she may — or may not — do it.

We are concerned that our daughter is limiting herself socially by focusing her attention on her best friend. We don’t know whether we should be worried about that or not. She doesn’t show any signs of depression, but she does complain about being bored.

Is there anything we can do to help her expand her world?


(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

A. Before you make any decisions, remember that you’re dealing with a changeling. When a child is 13-going-on-14, her body and her mind are often playing loop the loop with her emotions, her preferences and her life.

Your daughter may need to sleep much more, because children do most of their growing when they’re asleep and she has a lot of growing to do in the next few years. A sign that this growth spurt has started: She will bump into tables and desks and kitchen counters because her body is bigger than it used to be but the furniture is the same old size.

Your daughter’s mind also takes a big leap forward between 13 and 15. If not yet, then very soon she will begin to think in abstractions that may make her question every idea she’s ever had and maybe every idea you or her teachers have ever had, too.

And then there are the hormones that trouble so many young teens. These chemicals first peppered your daughter’s system when she was 7; doused it intermittently when she was in her pre-teens and will flood her body for the next year or so. This can be harder on some teens than it is on others, just as menopause might be harder on you than it will be on your friends.

Besides all that, you have to consider your daughter’s temperament, because it governs her personality, her interests and even the number of friends she wants to make.

Some children are happiest when they have a boatload of friends, and others, like your child, want to have only a few friends at a time. Either choice is fine unless a best friend has other interests or travels a lot or, worst of all, she moves away.

These passages won’t affect your daughter so much if you broaden her world, but do this by encouraging new activities rather than new friends. If she’s interested in cooking, for instance, you might treat her to a class in Chinese or Mexican cuisine so she can learn a skill, earn compliments and meet some other young teens who like to cook, too. If a child is in the right setting — whether she’s in a cooking class or running cross-country or playing in the school band — she will meet other teens who like what she likes, and that’s what she needs most. A shared interest is the basis of every strong friendship.

Most of all, you need to encourage your daughter to do some volunteer work either on her own, with an organization or with her family, because the brain is hard-wired to give as well as to get.

Whether she picks up litter on the riverbank for an hour or so every Saturday, helps a family in needm raises funds for the Make-a-Wish Foundation or works on the next big election, she will be rewarded for it, not only with a sense of pride and a sense of purpose but with an inner glow that she would never get anywhere else. Volunteer work will also teach her that those who have more — money or love or time — have the duty to give more. A child is never too young to learn this lesson.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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