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My child is struggling socially. What can I do to help?

By James G. Minikowski, IMFT-S October 9, 2014

Many parents may remember adolescence as a carefree time forming new and potentially lifelong friendships. It is easy to forget about the difficulty of fitting in and finding the "right" friends. Because a majority of a teenager's time is spent in an environment where popularity is king, it can be common for a teen to struggle socially and feel that "no one likes me."

How can today's parents help their teenagers develop healthy friendships, especially when many teens don't want to hear from their parents?

Adolescents frequently believe things are "different today" and parents "don't understand." It's important not to react to this by minimizing adolescents' experiences as "just high school (or middle school) drama." Invalidating experiences can encourage teens to further reject a parent's influence and contribute to feelings of alienation. If teens are to develop into successful adults, parents will benefit from remembering their own struggles to be or stay popular, and using that memory to communicate caring and support.

Helping a teenager with social struggles is not the same as attempting to fix the problem for them. A parent marching into school or calling another teen's parent is horrifying to most young people. Adolescence is a period of developing independence and it's critical to learn to overcome struggles individually. Many parents struggle to promote social independence because it seems like only yesterday their children needed help with every scrape and bruise. Healthy parents will practice supportive listening and offer advice only after teens have shared and asked for it. When advising, they will avoid dictating directions and instead coach solutions by considering alternative actions, while allowing the teenager to make his/her own decisions. Parents who follow up on the outcomes express caring by doing so.

Opening the family home to friends is great, but parents don't make friendships for teenagers. Rarely has having the "cool parents" been the reason that friendships are successful, but demonstrating healthy relationships with other adults can provide a model from which teens can learn. Teenagers may reject adult activities as being for "old people," but exposing them to the healthy ways parents welcome, care about and support their own friendships promote healthy friendships among their teenagers. Adolescents should learn that similarities between people, not popularity or possessions, are what create strong bonds. Watching friendships among adults allows adolescents opportunities to learn that pursuing and maintaining friendships are lifelong pursuits.

Although it's normal for adolescents to be concerned with social issues, sometimes it is a symptom of other issues as well. Difficulties dealing with peers may be signs of a teenager who is struggling with depression, anxiety, attention issues or other mental health concerns. Parents who question whether their child's social struggles are symptoms of issues should visit with their child's pediatrician or a mental health professional who can address these and other questions.

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