Q: How much socializing with peers does a teenager really need? Our 15-year-old daughter has always struggled to make friends, but especially since we moved to this city five years ago (military family, last move). She has friends her age at church but almost none at school. My husband and I are fine with her lack of school friends if she's okay with the situation, but she isn't. That's clear from her reaction when we asked her who she's spending time with at school. She started yelling and crying and telling us that we think she's a friendless loser. I believe that's what she believes about herself. We're trying to figure out if it's even necessary for kids to spend time with other kids. That's clearly the prevailing wisdom, but she has had terrible interactions with other students at school. Middle school was horrible for her; girls who had been together since kindergarten were mean and not inclusive. She had a lot of anxiety during her freshman year with the way she was treated by other students, and we encouraged her to quit the Leadership program because those kids were not nice, and there's no good reason to force yourself to do something that makes you feel terrible at 15. Add to that the fact that she isn't always the nicest. She is very afraid of showing vulnerability, which results in her coming off as mean and dismissive of others, even when she doesn't intend to. Her very sensitive nature gets hidden under a shell, so she's like a sea urchin: prickly on the outside but soft and sweet underneath. She is comfortable around adults. Do we need to take a stronger role in helping her develop a stronger friend network?

A: Oh boy. There are many factors here, and I want to unpack those so we can better understand your prickly teen. Even without the military background, many parents are struggling with their sensitive teens (and their friendships), so you are not alone.

Let’s take care of your question about whether to help her develop friends: Parents can’t force a teen to do much of anything, least of all create friendships. At best, your daughter will resent you. At worst, she’ll still struggle with making friends, but now she won’t want to turn to her parents because they seem to want to “fix” her.

Keep that in mind as you think about your daughter and her stage in life. Adolescence is a time of great transition. Neither a child nor an adult, a 15-year-old acutely feels the separation from everyone around them. No one seems to truly get them, and, because they are already self-conscious, any perceived (or real) slight feels epic and ego-shattering. Add in social media, and today’s adolescents are pretty stressed out. Your daughter has had the added challenge of feeling like an outsider, which can often add to a teen’s angst.

Your daughter is struggling with making friends, and the past couple of years were tough. Entering a middle school where everyone knows each other is difficult, and it doesn’t sound like it got better. She experienced some bumpy times in her freshman year with some mean children, and you encouraged her to quit her activity. I am not here to judge that decision; I don’t know if you tried to reach out to the other adults in the school to help with the meanness, I don’t know if you tried to help your daughter navigate the meanness and I don’t know if she simply complained enough until you allowed her to quit. The reason I am wondering about this is that, if your daughter quit without trying to find solutions to the meanness issue, a dynamic was cemented: “No one liked me in middle school, no one likes me in high school, and when the going got hard, I got out of there.”

Again, the unkindness may have required a departure from her Leadership program, but quitting when things get tough, while easier in the moment, leaves a teen deeply unsatisfied and even more ostracized from her community. The mean kids “won,” and now your daughter has shut down her feelings of vulnerability and pain.

There is good news. It is clear that you know and understand your daughter. You may not be impressed by this, but many adults do not understand that their teenager is afraid to show vulnerability, and hence, also becomes unkind. Additionally, to admit that your daughter can be a bit of mean girl is a feather in your parenting cap; many parents only see how their child is a victim, which does no favors for the child. Lastly, your daughter has many good things in her life: She has loving, attentive parents and friends in her church group, and she is happy in her studies. All is not lost.

Now for your essential question: “Do we need to take a stronger role in helping her develop a stronger friend network?” I think your daughter would be better served by asking this question: “How can we help her better understand herself, as well as develop some social and coping skills for school?”

You know she can make and keep friends (as evidenced by her church friends), so that is not the issue. She needs an ally in school in the form of a compassionate adult. A teacher, counselor, coach, anyone who can provide a bit of time and wisdom when it comes to navigating friends. Because this adult doesn’t love your daughter the way you do, it is easier to be objective, direct and kind.

Your daughter also needs to understand that, while friendships are important, the right friendships are more important. Help your daughter to see the traits and characteristics she values in her church friends, and then see if there is anyone who is like that in school. Because teens can become global in their assumptions (everyone is mean), it is a useful exercise to ask your daughter thoughtful questions. Remember that she may not have quick answers, but helping her slow down and reflect is good for both her and the people she knows.

As for your role of facilitating friendships, I am all about low-hanging fruit. She has church friends, so offer to pick them up for bowling or a movie. Although having friends at school is nice, you can encourage these outside friendships. Sit down with your daughter and make a list of what you can all do together.

Finally, as painful as it was to witness, the fact that your daughter broke down to you is a good sign. Feeling friendless and left out is as painful as it gets for teens, and they need a safe and loving place to express their sorrow. The best you can do is listen, empathize and hug her though this. She will make it through as long as she keeps those emotions moving and can cry about what isn’t working for her. Remember: Her parents are more important than her peers.

For more information, read “Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers” by Gordon Neufeld.

Good luck.

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