My teenager can’t seem to make friends

We have three children, a girl aged 14, a boy aged 11 and a girl aged four. The eldest seems to have great difficulty in making friends. She is in second year in a mixed sex school and just cannot seem to fit in with any group.

We have suggested many things, such as joining sports groups, which she has done, but on a daily basis she says she is excluded and comes home very unhappy. 

She is in a sports club outside school and seems happier there. She’s in a drama group, also outside school, and is more confident meeting new people in these settings. She seems stuck in a rut in school and she feels she is carrying a reputation for being unpopular. 

She struggled to have friends in junior school, so this seems to be an extension of her difficulties. We find it so upsetting when she asks if she will ever have friends. She says she hates her life. We try to advise her but mostly she gets very upset or can get very angry and shout at us. I am not sure of what to suggest for her – we’d appreciate some advice. 

As a parent, it is hard to witness your child having difficulties with friendships – you can see their unhappiness, yet it is not something you can directly control. Though you can support them, you can’t make friends for them and this is something they have to do for themselves.

Friendships can be particularly challenging during adolescence, when teenagers are working out their own identity and how to fit in with their peer group, and this can be particularly hard in school. While as an adult you have control over your social and work groups, as a teenager you can’t choose your classmates. You share the school with them whether you get on with them or not.

As a parent, there is a lot you can do to help your daughter. The place to start is making sure you are there to listen and support her. Though it can be distressing to hear her upset, it is good that your daughter shares her feelings with you and it would be far worse if she bottled things up and spoke to no one.

Reach out to her
Even though she might initially react angrily to your offers of help, it is important that you continually reach out to her and support her. During the teenage years, children are pulling away from their parents and can be less likely to accept your direct advice or influence, so you often need to adapt your approach.

When she talks about things, be wary about giving too much advice or jumping in to sort out the problem. Instead, anytime she talks, make an effort to first listen patiently and empathise with her, before helping her come up with solutions.

It can help to explore with her exactly what is happening in the classroom, to identify the different groups and subgroups and when/how does she feel excluded, etc. It is also useful to explore whether there are boys or girls in the class who she gets on better with, or if there are any classes or times she feels more comfortable and included.

Explore friendships
You may be able to identify some girls or boys in the class with whom she might have more in common and those who could be potential friends. If your daughter is open to this, you could explore concrete strategies for making new friends and coping in school, whether this is how to break the ice and approach a new person, or how to join in a game or conversation, or how to listen and share interests and so on.

There are some good books on friendships and coping as a teenager that you could read with your daughter, such as The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens.

In addition, forming friendships is a topic that is regularly covered in teenage magazines and sitcoms – maybe you could read, watch and discuss these with your daughter as a starting point to talking through the issues.

Link with her school
It is also a good idea to talk to the teachers in your daughter’s school about how she is getting on and what they can do to support her (this is ideally done with your daughter’s knowledge).

Schools have a responsibility to ensure no bullying or exclusion occurs and there are lot of things that teachers can sensitively do such as keeping a close eye on class interactions, making subtle changes in the classroom to support your daughter fitting in more, as well as helping her get involved in activities or giving her a position of responsibility.

Some schools may also have a school counsellor that your daughter could see confidentially for more regular support in managing the situation.

Build on what’s working outside school
It is also important to build on what is working outside the school. The fact that she is happier and making friends in her sport and drama is great and something to cultivate and expand. Maybe you could allow her more time in these activities and support these friendships?

You could also help her to meet other friends outside school, for example, by arranging family events where your daughter spends time with cousins or friends’ children of her own age who she might like.

Continue to build her self-esteem in other areas of her life and set up situations where she can find her niche. For example, taking up a creative hobby or volunteering for a good cause, or taking a challenge such as working to achieve a Gaisce award are all activities which will not only make her feel better about herself but bring her into contact with new friends.

Many children go through periods of unhappiness or poor friendships in school and what gets them through is the fact they have a good life outside school, either in other interests or in a close connection with their family.

Maintain a good relationship with your daughter
Whatever happens make sure to cultivate your own relationship with your daughter. Set aside time to be with her one to one, doing fun stuff and not just talking about problems.

Whatever difficulties your daughter has with friends, being close to her parents will be a crucial respite for her and help her succeed in the long term.

John Sharry, Irish Times, May 2010.  John writes in the Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday. Information on his upcoming courses for parents is here.