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By Susan Parmelee
I have met with more than one high school student who told me how difficult the social transition to high school was for them. One student said, “I showed up that first day, scared, only to find none of my close friends were in any of my classes.” Often the friends who have moved with your child from middle school to high school shift to other social groups and new activities, leaving your child feeling alone and left out. As a parent this hard to watch, and it can be even more difficult to keep yourself from trying to fix the situation for your child. Here are a few facts to help you understand the changes your child is facing and a few tips for supporting your child without alienating them.
The reason I like working with teens is that it is such an interesting and tumultuous developmental phase, fraught with intense emotions, passionate causes and seemingly life-or-death social situations (“Everyone will be at the party…you have to let me go!”) Adolescence is a word that often ends up used with a tone of exasperation, but I encourage parents and adults involved with teens to watch how amazing it can be and to marvel in all of the changes taking place. Teens are doing their best to figure out who they are and who they will be. Their adult life is all about their relationships with peers, and this can be a time of rapidly changing relationships—mainly separating from their parents and seeking support from their peers.
So, when do we become concerned about the teen who does not seem to have any close friends? It is a tricky question. Although it is a natural human trait to need social connections, I have witnessed some very emotionally healthy kids who thrive on social independence, achieving goals and exhibiting excellent social skills. I have also fielded questions and worked with families whose kids are truly struggling with the challenge of finding a peer group. It is heartbreaking to watch your child struggle, and I suggest parents trust their gut feelings to know when it might be time to seek out help.
It is important to help the teen feel like nothing is wrong with them just because they are not fitting in the way they or you had envisioned. I recommend parents focus on activities and hobbies that raise their child’s self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. Participation in activities that raise competencies usually results in finding like-minded peers and has the added bonus of keeping a child away from risky activities they might try in order to fit in. San Clemente High School has a great number of school clubs that cover most teen interests. Check out the list of clubs on the high school website under “activities” with your teen and suggest they attend a meeting. Share your teen’s enthusiasm in their activities and achievements.
If your child suffers from extreme shyness or true social anxiety, it may be time to seek professional help. Often groups that teach social skills are a good option for teens who are having difficulty navigating their social life. This allows the teen to realize other youth are experiencing social struggles while simultaneously solving problems with their peers. If your child asks for your advice, be a good listener; ask them what they have tried, if anything is working and how they think you can help. Most of all be patient and supportive, appreciate your teen’s strengths and acknowledge their struggles.
For more about adolescent brain development, I recommend “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” by Daniel Siegel, Ph.D.
Susan Parmelee is a mental health social worker and one of the founders of the Wellness & Prevention Center, San Clemente. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.