Monday 19 March 2018

Dear David Coleman: 'My daughter's previous best friend got close to another girl and now she's alone'

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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 just started secondary school. She seems to have withdrawn from the group of friends that she had, and over the summer she spent more and more time on her iPad in her room. Her previous best friend got close to another girl, and now my daughter doesn't see either of them. If I bring this up, she just says she doesn't care. But she doesn't seem motivated to be with any friends now. I am really worried that, with this attitude, she'll isolate herself in secondary school. Any suggestions?

David replies: While it is great you  have noticed that your daughter seems to have been a little more isolated over the summer, it is important not to panic about it.

I wonder if the apparent withdrawal may have been specifically related to the drift, or sense of distance, that she felt in relation to her best friend and this other girl that she befriended? It sounds like your daughter did, indeed, get squeezed out.

Your daughter may have really struggled to make sense of how her best friend seemed to dump her in favour of befriending someone else. She may have been confused and upset, but may not have known what to do.

She may have experienced her best friend getting closer to another girl as a real rejection. This may have been very hurtful and given her real pause for thought in terms of befriending anyone.

If, prior to this break-up in her friendship, your daughter was sociable and friendly, then it is unlikely that she has lost these skills. Rather it is more likely that she just feels 'burned' by the loss of her friend and is reluctant to let herself get close to others in case they too 'reject' her.

In addition, your own efforts to help her process this whole experience with her previous best friend have been spurned. Although she says she doesn't care, I think you recognise that she probably cares a lot.

I think it is worth making further efforts to help her to make sense of, and process, the experience of rejection that she may have felt with her friend. To do this, I suggest you rely heavily on the skills of empathy.

Empathy is the skill we use to place ourselves into someone else's shoes and try to imagine how they might have felt about the situations they have found themselves in.

Your daughter may struggle to even find the words to express the complexity of how the break-up in her friendship affected her. So, the more you can try to guess at how she felt about it, the easier it will be for her to connect to the likely feelings she has experienced.

With your daughter, you might guess that she felt rejected, pushed away, unlikeable or scorned. She may feel that there is something wrong with her that made her friend move away from her. She may be worried that she can't compare to other girls, since her best friend seemed to choose someone else over her.

Tapping into all of these kinds of feelings, and suggesting them to your daughter as possible explanations for how she may have felt, may help your daughter to better understand the experience she had over the summer.

At the very least, demonstrating your understanding of how difficult a time this may have been for her will allow her to feel connected to you and supported by you. With this greater connection, you might be able to then help her to move on from it, so that she doesn't remain isolated.

Hopefully, with a bit more conscious understanding of how difficult a time this was, your daughter may come to realise that there is nothing, in fact, wrong with her and that sometimes this drift just happens with our friends.

You can also get in touch with her secondary school and check what, if any, pastoral supports they have for children. Most schools will be aware that the social transition can be especially hard for first-years and they are usually well prepared to help them ease in and make friends.

It is great that you have recognised that she seems to have withdrawn socially and, with some understanding from you, she might garner the courage to have another go at developing new - and with luck - stable friendships.

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