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Can Parents Substitute for Friends?

Parents can't replace teen friendships but they can help fill lonely hours

Parents can't replace teen friendships but they can help fill lonely hours


Hello Irene,

Over the years my daughter has struggled with social issues and having friends. Like many of the stories I read, our daughter is beautiful, athletic, top grades, straight (no drinking or smoking), good at conversations etc. etc. Yet, her friendships seem to fizzle out. She is a real sweetheart, kind, and giving and yet she does not get that in return (at least not consistently).

A few years ago, she was having a hard time with it, had an eating disorder, and saw a therapist. She was making some strides with her social life, but then things seemed to skid. It's breaking our hearts. We don't know how to react or how to interact with our daughter at times.

When there are weekends where she has nothing to do, do we try to "friend" her and go to movies, plays, etc. or do we ignore it? She will be off to college next year and she believes that it's a new start, new people, with fewer cliques, and that she can hang with people more readily that have common interests.

Our concerns are trying to get her to feel good about herself and to help her in college so that she doesn't find herself in the same situation miles away from home. Does a new environment really change things?

Signed, Concerned Mom


Dear Concerned Mom,

Your daughter sounds like a lovely young woman. Let me try to respond to the two issues you raised:

1) Parents can't substitute for friends but they can help young people feel a bit less lonely if they are having social problems. Try to encourage your daughter not to give up on making friends until next year. Encourage her to participate in extracurricular activities or clubs, particularly ones that are not school-based, so she can meet people her age with common interests.

And while you can't take the place of friends, it's fine to spend time together as mother-and-daughter, or for your daughter to do fun things with other family members. Just make sure that family time isn't so excessive that it's a way of avoiding spending time with peers. Regardless of age, it's nice to maintain a healthy balance between family time vs. friend time.

2) Yes, college can be a whole new experience that will give your daughter a chance to leave her past behind -- if she has the skills to cultivate and nurture new friendships. Another nice thing is that she will be thrown into a larger pool of people and may have an easier time finding friends to whom she can relate. Even though she will be away, it's likely you'll communicate with her pretty regularly to make sure things are going smoothly. Visiting day and the holidays will also give you the opportunity to get together with her in-person. Given your daughter's history of an eating disorder, it's normal that you would be a bit concerned about her welfare when she is on her own.

I think that your daughter's positive attitude about the future is a very good sign but you mentioned that she was seeing a therapist before things began to "skid." Do you think it might be worthwhile for her to see that person, with whom she has already established a relationship, for a session or two to see if the therapist has any other ideas about why your daughter is having problems socially again? The fleeting nature of her friendships may or may not be purely situational.

Hope this helps.

Warm regards, Irene

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