Question: My seventh-grader, although she's funny and incredibly bright, has had a tough time making friends over the years. In elementary school, she preferred doing projects on her own and missed opportunities to interact and partner with her classmates. She was in a dual-language program from kindergarten through fifth grade with the same group of students. Despite this, she never had a "best friend" while others formed strong bonds. Now in middle school this lack of close friends is catching up with her. She feels as if nobody speaks to her if she doesn't speak to them first, and she is so sad watching others excited to see and talk to one another. It breaks my heart, and I don't know what to do. She is an involved student and participates in extracurricular activities such as sports, theater and orchestra. I often encourage her to ask friends to hang out outside of school, but she doesn't do so very often. How can I help her during this difficult time?
Answer: The first thing I wondered when I read this letter is, "Who's having the more difficult time, you or your daughter?" Of course, I know you're writing because it is awful to watch your child suffer; I have yet to meet a parent who shrugs off friendship problems. In this scenario, I'm just not sure where her troubles begin and your feelings end. It's something to consider as we dive in.
When I hear a child is feeling lonely, I check for a couple of points. First, what is the child's temperament? Is this a child who thrives off numerous friendships, or is this a child who has always enjoyed one or two good friends? You report that she preferred solitary activities in her elementary years, so maybe she is introverted, maybe she is very bright, or maybe she is just an old soul (or maybe all three). In any case, it isn't a problem that she didn't make many friends in elementary school, despite the fact our culture prizes collecting friends. Is her shyness possibly standing in the way of connections? Yes, but that doesn't make her way wrong or in need of being fixed. It is important to understand the mind of an introverted child, and I love Susan Cain's work on this subject.
The second thing I always look at: "Is the child involved activities or hobbies?" And wow, your daughter is in everything! Why is this important? Well, an interested child is an interesting child, and her participation in all these activities means she is constantly interacting with her peers. So maybe she doesn't have a robust group of friends, but she is far from alone, and the fact that she is this active is a good sign.
The third question I have is, "Can this child approach others, and do they need further skill-building in this domain?" The good news is that your daughter reports that she does approach and speak to her peers, so she is already ahead of the game in regard to the courage that requires. She may need help with the "how" and "what" she is saying to these kids. Under no circumstances should your daughter pretend she is someone else, but there are many ways to help her rehearse conversation starters and then continue those with invitations. Something like, "Wow, practice was hard today . . . Did you think so, too?" As the conversation goes on, your daughter can make a direct ask: "My mom is taking me for pizza after the game on Saturday, would you like to come?" Your job, as the parent, is to make yourself available for these outings. Maybe it is a trip to a movie, a mall or a coffeehouse, anything that facilitates your daughter hanging out with a new friend. You can brainstorm some ideas with your daughter about fun outings and make them part of the direct ask, just don't be too pushy or needy about it.
Finally, there are such things as social skills groups, so you could reach out the school counselor to ask whether there is one in the school. Your daughter is not alone in struggling with friendships at this age. Seventh-grade friendships are intense. Former friendships are shifting, alliances are switching, and smartphones and the internet only complicate friendships further. Hurt feelings abound, and it can be hard to know whom to trust.
Your daughter's safest place, emotionally and physically, is at home. Don't let her see you panic about this. If you are worried about her, she will think there is something to be worried about, and you don't need to add to her stress.
Look at this part of her life as an opportunity for her to build lifelong friend-making skills while also staying true to herself. Make sure you point out (but don't cheerlead) all the wonderful attributes she has going for her. She is her own person and may want different things than you do.
Most of all: Don't pity her!
Stay positive and good luck.
Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.