Dear Wes and Jenny: We are very worried about our 15-year-old daughter because she has so few friends. We don't care if she is popular, but we really don't think she's made one good friend since her best friend moved away two years ago (our daughter is in her last year of junior high). When we try to talk to her about it, she gets very upset. The phone never rings; she never goes anywhere. Her whole life is being at home (she is an only child and, I fear, a lonely child). Is this unusual? Will it get better in high school? She is very shy, quiet and hates to try new things by herself. Any suggestions?
Wes: I am convinced that loneliness is one of the most underrated problems of adolescence, underlying many problems I see in my office. First you have to determine whether your daughter is socially anxious, introverted or lacking social skills. These are critically different things. Introverted people simply get more energy from being with themselves than with others. In fact, social interactions tax their resources and they may prefer to avoid them. A therapist can interview your daughter and may be able to figure this out, or certain tests can do amazing things to figure out the complexities of how we think, feel and understand the world.
If your daughter is introverted, she may simply need longer to find the right connection with others. When it happens, it may be a fairly private experience. She may go from being a unit of one to a unit of two, and that may satisfy her as it did with her best friend. Your job would be to help her have as many opportunities as she can to find this person to connect with, one who will not overtax her and instead give her energy. Her dating life also will be interesting because introverted people tend to wait until someone approaches them, and those are not always the best bets for happy romance.
On the other hand, there is a specialized form of anxiety involving excess worry about social situations. This is even harder to tease out of a junior high girl, because many of these kids struggle with some level of social anxiety. Didn't we all?
Again, a few visits to a therapist may clarify whether this is the problem. In this case, your daughter will appear to greatly desire new relationships but feel incredibly shy about trying anything that might end in tragic embarrassment. Beyond assessment, a therapist is in the best position to help her deal with this sort of painful shyness because he or she can get away with discussing the very things that you have found her so unwilling to share. A good one should be able to figure out the right "code" to get her to talk pretty quickly.
In more serious cases, medication can help within the context of therapy. Other than this, your job with a socially anxious teen is to get her into the most likely place of successful interaction with others. Sometimes a good church youth group can provide this. Jenny also offers other ideas below.
Poor social skills are another matter entirely. If your daughter wants friends and seems to fail at finding or keeping them, then she probably needs some specific coaching. Once again, you may want to find someone other than you to do this job. It is a very difficult subject to deal with as a parent/child interaction.
Jenny: Your daughter sounds like me in junior high. Of course many people in my junior high didn't do a lot with one another because most kids at that age thought they didn't have many friends. I think of junior high as the awkward years, sadly. I came to the realization that in order to make more friends, I would have to become involved and find something that I liked and try to share it with other people. I started to get involved in theater and photography, and I learned that there were many teenagers like myself and that being shy was just something I had to get over. Encourage your daughter to find something she loves doing, and eventually she should find people to become friends with. You can't sit in your room alone all day listening to music or watching TV and expect to instantly gain friends.
Your daughter still may have an attachment to her best friend. She relied on her when she was in elementary school and junior high, but she needs to realize there are many other people out there and all she needs to do is step outside. It may be difficult for her to adjust without the security of this friend, but in high school everyone is making new connections and there are more opportunities to meet new people.
Friends you have in junior high can change, especially in high school, and people with whom you share more interests can replace them. I met most of my friends that I have now in high school, but I am still friends with some of the people I went to elementary and middle school with before moving to Lawrence. I learned to adjust, and you can help your daughter do the same. Be supportive and understand it may still be hard for her. Help her find something she likes and embrace it. This can also help with self-esteem, and let's face it -- in junior high, self-esteem is hard to come by. Just know that there is hope and try to help her see that.