My 11-year-old daughter is struggling with friends

My daughter is 11 and going into 6th class this September, but she is having a difficult summer. She has always found it hard to make many friends as she can be quite shy and not forward in groups. This means she can be left out of some of the invitation lists for parties in her class.

I always try not to make a big deal of this and support her the best way I can. This year, things seemed to be better because she developed a good friend from her class who lives near us so they often met for play dates. The girl went away for the beginning of the summer and my daughter missed her. When she came back, things were different. They met up for a playdate and my daughter came back a little upset.

There was another girl from the class at the playdate and my daughter felt left out. The friend said something to my daughter that upset her – she would not tell me the exact words but it made my daughter think her friend preferred the older girl.

Since then, my daughter has been moping around the house. I casually mentioned something to the other mother and she said she thought the play date went fine and did not notice anything. Should I do anything to help my daughter or will it blow over? I want to make sure everything goes well for her before she starts back to school.

Though good friendships are very important to children’s wellbeing, learning how to make and keep friends is far from easy and can be a big challenge for lots of children as they grow up.

I think many of these challenges can peak at your daughter’s age, when the start of puberty brings heightened self-consciousness and sensitivity as well as an increased desire to make relationships outside the family. At 11, the pressure to fit in becomes intense and children worry about which group they are in or who really are their best friends, and so on.

In addition, during this time it is normal for children to fall in and out of friendships as they experiment and learn about relationships. This means the potential for hurt, upset and feeling excluded are high and this is especially true for young children who may not yet have learned the necessary social skills to deal with these challenges.

What you can do as a parent
While it is not a good idea to micromanage your children’s friendships, most children will need their parents’ support from time to time. While you can’t make decisions about friendships for your daughter, you can expose her to good friendship opportunities, help her learn social skills and be there as a supportive coach as she learns to manage the ups and downs of relationships.

Below are some ideas on how to help your daughter with her current dilemma.

Encourage her to talk
It is good that your daughter is talking to you about what happened with her friend, but at the moment she is not telling you all the details. It would be useful if she could tell you exactly what the friend told her so you can understand why she might have felt excluded. If she talks openly then you can help her put things in perspective. For example, she could have misinterpreted what the girl said when they met up.

As you talk, make sure you don’t adopt a simple blaming stance towards the other girl which will only make things worse. Instead, the goal is to listen supportively to help your daughter understand her own feelings and those of the other girl.

As you listen, you could also acknowledge how hard it might have been to meet her friend after a gap and how difficult it might have been to have the other girl present at the play date.

In my experience, three-way or group play dates can be fraught with problems as they can make exclusion more likely, particularly at this sensitive age. For this reason, I usually recommend parents arrange one-to-one play dates for children who need support building friendships.

Problem-solve with your daughter
Once you have listened, the next step is to problem-solve with your daughter about what to do next. The key here is to empower her to make her own decisions where possible – you might offer some options but you want her to decide.

For example, you could offer to invite the friend back to your house for a one-to-one play date in the near future to allow them to reconnect and get over the last incident. Explore with your daughter how this might go well, what they might do together, and how they could simply move on from the previous incident, and so on.

Build other friendships
In addition to reaching out to the original friend, it is important to help your daughter build some other friendships.

Because of the volatile nature of changing friendships at this age, it is best if your daughter has a few potential friendship groups in different contexts. These can include the school class, neighbours, special interests, cousins and so on. This can help to ensure that she is not over-dependent on one person or one context.

Explore with your daughter other potential children she could make friends with. In my experience, children often get over-focused on one popular friend who doesn’t value them in the same way, when there are often other children they know who are more like them, and who would make better friends at this time.

You can facilitate her making new friends by taking her to interests she enjoys, reaching out to identified children’s parents, and arranging one-to-one play dates, and so on.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, August 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
OCTOBER 2017: Dublin ‘Positive Parenting’ courses with John, Saturday, October 21st (3-9 yr olds) and Sunday, October 22nd (10-16yr olds). Details are here.