When Your Kid Can’t Keep Friends

Written on August 8, 2013 at 4:20 pm , by


Recently, a mom wrote to me with the following problem:

“I have a 14-year-old daughter who is starting high school in the fall. Since she was a toddler, she’s always been confident and outgoing with lots of friends. She is beautiful, multi-talented and very smart. In the fall of 7th grade, her elementary school friends turned on her and she has not been able to find new ones since. Every time she makes friends, they eventually blow her off—making up excuses for not getting together or ignoring her when they see her—again and again. She ends up excluded, alone and blaming herself for somehow being ‘annoying.’ She gets defensive and angry if I talk about my experiences a zillion years ago or challenge her assumption that she is a loser. How can I help her?”

While this is not an unusual problem, the answer to it is pretty complex. But first let’s address the easier issue of this mother’s well-intentioned reaction to talk to her daughter about her own experiences and assure her daughter she’s not a loser. Both, in this case, are counter-productive for the following reasons. First, talking to the daughter about her past experiences probably comes across as if she thinks they’re the same and the daughter understandably doesn’t agree.

Second, instead of assuring her that she’s not a loser, a parent in this situation is better off saying something like: “If you really are feeling this badly about yourself, then we need to think through how you can feel better. You’re old enough that I know you want to figure this on your own but I’m asking that you trust me enough that we work on this together.”

Now, on to the more complicated issues. Girls in her position often learn to either hate other girls or turn themselves inside out trying to please the girls who are rejecting them. Not good. But here’s the hard thing to think about. Since this is a pattern of behavior, the big question is does this girl (and maybe by extension the mom) really want to know what the other girls think is the reason/explanation for their behavior? Because sometimes figuring out the reason for something can be pretty painful. In case either one of them do, here’s what I think are the most likely possibilities.

The girl really is as beautiful, multi-talented and smart as the mother says she is. As much as any parent loves having a child like this, it can easily cause friction with other kids. There are girls who are alienated because they’re good at something, intelligent, pretty and have a good body. (A girl can be pretty or have a good body without girls being jealous. If she has both, chances are good that they’ll either exclude her or worship her.)

Many parents, in reaction would say, “Those girls are all jealous and you can’t let them get you down.” This response is a way too simplistic soundbite. Jealousy is a complicated emotion and it often rages in the best of kids. Also there’s a very, very good chance that even if they were jealous, these other girls would never admit it to anyone—including themselves. Instead they would come up with reasons, that they absolutely believe, that justify their anger and rejection. Usually, the “reason” is that the girl is always trying to get attention or she thinks she’s better than the other girls because she’s always doing “x.” But that explanation doesn’t give any guidance about how the girl should manage herself so she feels better about how she’s handling the situation.

As a parent of a girl who is starting high school, this is the time for the daughter to figure out what’s going on—which means talking to some of the girls who have excluded her in the past. Here’s a suggestion for what she can say.

I know we aren’t friends anymore and I’m not calling you so things can go back to the way we were before. I’m calling because I really don’t know why you stopped wanting to hang out with me. I know this may sound strange but I want to know why. Maybe there’s something I need to hear and it may be hard for me to know but it’s important.

There’s a chance that the other girl will unleash on her. Or do the opposite by saying “No!” Or even say, “You promise you won’t get mad at me?” If that’s the case, the daughter can say, “I’m asking you to be honest but I hope you realize it may be hard for me.”

The big challenge here is separating the other girls’ baggage (jealousy, and insecurity) with the possibility there is something your daughter is doing that is pushing the other girls away: like not giving them enough space or not picking up small ways people communicate when they’re asking someone to stop doing something that’s irritating.

Bottom line is she shouldn’t apologize for her accomplishments or her natural characteristics. But if there’s behavior that she needs to self-reflect on, this is where she’ll learn to get difficult feedback from other people and uncover what she may need to change about how she conducts herself.

Remember I said be careful about the questions you ask because you may not really want the answer? Sometimes, even though it’s difficult and unpleasant, this is the way a girl can develop strong friendships she can depend on.

What would you advise this mom to do? Post a comment and tell me.


Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the best-selling Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to www.rosalindwiseman.com. Do you have a parenting question?
E-mail askrosalind@familycircle.com.

12 Responses to “When Your Kid Can’t Keep Friends”

  1. I can’t tell you how much I dislike that advice! You are setting up a vulnerable girl for a potential smackdown and four years of high school drama. YIKES.

    Isn’t there is better way to handle rejection than by giving the rejecters MORE power? After all, teenage girls are unlikely to know exactly WHY they exclude someone (they are naturally tribal) and they even less likely to be capable of expressing it in a compassionate way.

    I think what you’ve described is a feedback mechanism that belongs in the workplace, among adults, not in teenage friendships.

    My daughter is 12, a smart, pretty, amazingly talented, confident girl who has few friends and prefers it that way. She has been shunned by peers who find her unacceptable, possibly because she is not wealthy, dresses quirkily, doesn’t participate in the same activities, uses multisyllabic words, is confident, or whatever. Who knows?

    It isn’t her job to figure it out. She has been and will be accepted, rejected, loved, ignored, to varying degrees throughout her life.

    I see my job as a mom is to help her trust her instincts. The “mysteries” of any of our relationships is found within, not without. Developing equanimity and a strong internal locus of control is a lifelong character building exercise. Meditation helps.

    If she complained of feeling rejected, I would help her recall her social successes and what felt “right” about them. I would encourage her to seek friendships that give her those feelings, and to provide the same in return to her friends. I might also remind her that she herself has rejected some people, by not inviting every child to her birthday parties, for example. It is inevitable.

    But the best thing we can do as parents is to model how to be a good friend — one who chooses wisely, is nurturing, respectful, and self-respecting, who can intuit when and how much intimacy to allow, and when to let people go.

  2. I agree with the comment above. Asking the girl to be vulnerable with a peer that has already rejected her is setting the girl up for more rejection.

    I would encourage the girl to find new interests to create opportunities for making new friends and building her self esteem.

  3. Making more of an issue than it is; either mom herself has issues or she should just set up her daughter for activities outside the school – sports, arts, drama clubs etc; I was in middle school not too long ago and I could care less about my classmates cause I had plenty of friends through art school and summer camps. #helicoptearentng = you can’t solve everything; just gotta let them deal.

  4. Although I see some good points in the responses, I do agree with the article. The other dynamic which might be happening is that with the other girls rejecting her, there may be one or more girls who really do want to have a friendship with her, but aren’t willing to break away from the group. If she were to contact them individually, she might find an ally and it might give one of these girls the strength to stand up for what she feels and be friends with the rejected girl. Of course, the girl would have to have a strong level of courage and maturity to have this type of conversation effectively. It wouldn’t work for everyone. Definitely a thought-provoking dilemma and conversation.

  5. I’ve been through this exact situation with my daughter. It’s about power struggles amongst the girls so confronting them probably won’t do much good as they will act like nothing happened. Girls that bully do not like to be confronted. My advice would be to have the girl work on her self-esteem and seek out other friends–maybe someone else that feels the same way she does. I also found it very helpful to make sure that my child had friends outside of school. It’s very difficult for the parent to watch the child go through this, but giving your child the tools to handle these situations themselves is what will work the best. I used to remind my daughter that Girl World is not the Real World so that it doesn’t matter if she’s popular/accepted or not because she will never have to see any of these people again unless she wants to once she graduates. Also, I feel that in high school the kids mature more after freshman year as they see that the upper classmen don’t behave like the kids in middle school. (I’m generalizing, of course.) The clique lines tend to blur more, but that doesn’t mean that some kids aren’t targeted. Tell your child not to play the victim because if you play it, you’ll probably be it. Empowering young men and women works the best and much of empowerment comes from having good self-esteem.

  6. Hi-everyone. Thanks for the comments and I will respond shortly. But I will say right now this parent was describing a pattern, wherever this child went, over a period of years, where she was being excluded by different groups of people. As a person going into high school, she needs to be able to assess what is happening. Regarding the comments about not having her talk to any of the girls ever to find out what’s going on…if this young woman is being rejected and she doesn’t know why, than at some point it would do her well to know why. Yo can’t go through life assuming that it’s always everyone else–there have to moments of self-reflection. I want her, and any girl to be able to build the skills to face people who are being mean to them. Not because they will be best friends but because true self-esteem only comes from facing challenges that are unpleasant and sometimes intimidating. If we don’t build up our children to be able to face difficult social situations they will not be able to handle them. It’s not easy, they need support every step of the way, but they have to face these kinds of problems.

  7. I see your point, but sometimes there is no real reason. The girl may have been chosen to be the “outcast”, maybe for specific reasons in the past that no on remembers anymore. If she is changing communities regularly and experiencing this issue, then maybe your advice would be beneficial. However, if she is in the same community with the same kids, just moving up the school ladder, it may be a “cultural” issue and not a personal fault issue any longer. I would consider the advise but proceed with extreme caution.

    In addition, I think any discerning mom would be able to know if there is a character issue. And the girl herself should be able to know if there was an event that preceded her friends shunning two years ago. Chances are high that she is so self-focused and self-pitying that she isn’t really extending herself to actually BE a friend. I tell my kids “You get what you give.” To have friends you must be one. She may want to simply choose two girls that appear friendly and begin to try to know them by showing interest in who they are. Smile, ask questions, take the focus off of yourself and show interest (genuine) in someone else, find ways to interact outside of school. Moving into high school should give her the chance to start over as most high schools pull from several middle schools and kids are all “new” again to some degree.

  8. What if your daughter is too afraid to ask? I was just having this conversation last night with my daughter.

  9. Rosalind, your advice is spot on. My daughter has difficulty with her relationships, but I also see how she treats others. There is nothing more powerful than peer relationships showing us how to conduct ourselves. It may be difficult or painful but it’s good feedback to hear from others how or why we are shunned. As I’m writing this, I myself need to heed my own advice indeed. It is humbling but good to acknowledge our own subtle ways that we offend others. If we open up ourselves there is no reason for any of us to be isolated –even if we are beautiful, ambitious, smart AND have great bodies. Our hearts will always speak louder than external appearances and if we put up walls that is what we will get–walls.
    Thank you dearly, your books have helped me tremendously. Rhonda

  10. This is great advice on both sides! It’s actually good advice for moms who experience this with other moms and female friends. I definitely think we do need to teach our children to self reflect at an early age. For example, my daughter is in 1st grade and when I ask her who she played with at school she says no one. When I dig deeper and ask about specific girls who I know she really likes she responds – “they won’t play with me”. I dig deeper asking “did they say they wouldn’t play with you? Did you ask them to play with you and they said no?” I finally get out of her that she doesn’t like what the other kids are playing, so she does not participate. I then let her know that this is her choice which is fine, but that doesn’t mean they won’t play with her. She is actually not playing with them.

    Trust me this is time consuming and requires patience but I need to teach her now that rejection goes both ways.

    The worst thing a parent can ever tell their daughter is that people are jealous of her. In some cases it may be true, however that makes their actions about her when it’s possible it’s because the other person is insecure, not a nice person, is reacting from being treated badly or just not being considerate.

    There are so many reasons why people are unkind and inconsiderate to others. My mother would say this to me which would send me reeling into obsession wondering what did I do, what could I do different, how can I get them to like me. It definitely had the opposite affect and would lower my self esteem and made me even more self conscious. As an adult I now tend to self reflect in every situation wondering what did I do, was it me, why does this happen to me and I have a difficult time recognizing that the person just isn’t compatible to be my friend or isn’t a nice person.

    It is important to learn how to address difficult situations and confront another person in a calm, kind and sincere manner. My family NEVER confronted issues, we just ignored things that bothered us until someone would explode and start yelling. To this day is is unbearably difficult for me to confront my friends when they’ve hurt my feelings. It’s painful and so I ignore it and push them away. It’s very difficult for me to keep friends long term. I want my daughters to have much better relationship skills than I do.

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