Saturday 17 March 2018

Dear David Coleman: I'm worried that my 12-year old daughter only wants to hang out with younger children

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My 12-year-old daughter started secondary school this year and academically, she has settled in fine. My concern, however, is that she isn't interested in hanging out with any of the youngsters her own age. She only hangs around with an eight-year-old girl who lives across the road, whom she considers her best friend. I understand that I can't force her to hang out with children her own age, but I worry that when her friendship with the eight-year-old across the road fizzles out, she will have no-one. Any advice as to how I might handle the situation would be appreciated.

David replies: Children and their friendships occupy many hours of parental contemplation, anxiety, problem-solving and debate.

We can worry that they are too social and not focused on other things like their studies, or that they are too isolated and possibly lonely.

We may worry that their friends are a negative influence on them, leading them into dangerous or destructive behaviours. Or we might worry that their friends are not reliable and trustworthy, creating insecurity for our children.

The worries you have for your daughter, that she struggles with friendships with same-age peers and seems to prefer the company of younger children, probably fall into this category about her security versus insecurity.

I wonder how connected your daughter appeared to be, or felt herself to be, with her same-age friends in primary school, assuming she had same age friends in primary school? Was she friendly, then, with the other girls or boys in her class? Is the apparent disconnection with the other children in first year a new development, or has it always been the case?

Perhaps she does feel very unsure about the quality of her friendships in secondary school, and this is different to how it was in national school. Even when our children move into secondary school, with a bunch of friends from national school, there is no guarantee that those friendships will sustain.

First year of secondary school is a social melting pot, with many children moving into new circles of friends, either as an expansion of their social network or as a replacement for it. For example, they may take on a new persona for secondary school and ditch those friends who knew how they "used" to be in primary school.

The fact that your daughter is friendly with a much younger girl, does suggest that she might find the challenge of her peers to be too great. Other girls (and boys) her age may expect too much of her in terms of what she is expected to like, how she is expected to talk, and what she is expected to do.

For example, if there has been an explosion of interest, amongst the girls of her own age, in boys, dating, make-up, body image or such things, it just may not suit her personal developmental stage.

She may still feel like a "younger" pre-teen, while her peers have shifted into young teenage mode. If this is the case then a friendship with a much younger girl will be comforting and reassuring for her. Being friends with an eight-year-old may feel secure for her in a way that friendships with other 12 or 13-year-olds may not.

The best way to support your daughter is to keep interested in her and her friendships. As she matures you may find that her desire for same age friends also changes again.

While she has lots of opportunity to potentially make friends in school, it can be hard. You might want to encourage her to be involved in extra-curricular activities, like sport, music, dance, coding, scouting, public speaking or anything you think she may be interested in.

The benefits of such extra-curricular activities is that she is likely to find "like-minded" peers who share her interests and the opportunities for making new friends her own age or increased, without the restrictions on social groupings, or social hierarchies, that can happen in schools.

Mostly, though, try not to panic that she will be left friendless in the future. Be warm and supportive of her and try to let her find her own way forward with the friends she chooses.

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