This past year and a half has been hard on so many things in our lives as parents, on our family units, and on the lives of our children. I’m going to zero in on one thing in regards to the multitude of pandemic struggles: the social lives of teenage girls. For a lot of my patients, from my own experience, and from the parents’ who I’ve talked to about this, the separation from peers has been especially hard on our tweens and teenagers. This is actually the age group I’ve been the most concerned about as we’ve trudged through these months of lockdowns and digital schooling for this very reason. Their struggles in the context of loss of social contact with peers makes total sense, especially considering the main priority of this developmental stage is to make and solidify friendships, to get to explore who they are outside of the confines of family life. I’ve also witnessed many girls this age disappear into the world of social media as their social outlet, which will require a whole other article all on its own. What I wanted to address today, as summer is starting and we’re looking at the possibility of school being fully reopened in the Fall, is what to expect for your teenager’s social life and how you can help if it feels like they’re struggling.
First things’ first, let’s talk number of friends that an adolescent between the ages of 12-18 “should” have. The number might surprise you. And that number is…anything more than zero. Yep! One or more. That’s it! The gap between zero friends and one friend is as wide as the Pacific Ocean. Most teenage girls love to have friends, but the perfect number totally depends on the child. There does seem to be a sweet spot of 2-4 really, really good friends. We know this as adults and it’s also true for kids, quantity does not always mean quality. There are kids who are very popular who tell me having too many friends is stressful, that they have to say no to a lot of people and feel pulled in multiple directions. That friends will get upset with them if they aren’t showing special preference. The girls I talk to who have that sweet spot of 2, 3, or 4 good friends (and there are some who are happy with one really good friend) seem to me to be the happiest. Don’t get me wrong, these girls often feel that they don’t have enough friends, that they see those really popular girls and they seem so happy, etc. But when we really talk about the friends they have and how these fewer number of friendships enhance their lives, it’s clear to me who seems to be benefiting the most. So don’t get too worried if your daughter only has 1 or 2 friends, that is actually wonderful. Don’t get too worried if your daughter is one of those girls who has lots of friends either, just make sure to check in with her about how she’s doing managing all of those friendships. And keep reading if you have a teenage girl who doesn’t seem to have any friends right now.
Second of all, making new friends when you’re a teenager can be both surprisingly easy AND surprisingly difficult. Here’s a for instance. My family just got back from a multi-family beach vacation with lots of kids. Most of the children were under the age of 8, but my step-daughter, who is 12, was relatively close in age to another girl who was there, she had just-turned-14. My initial thoughts were, “great! She’ll have someone close to her age to hang out with!” Turns out, they barely spoke the entire trip. It’s practically impossible to force friendships on teenagers. They either click, or they don’t. So much of making friends when you’re a middle- or high-schooler is the amount of peers you get exposed to because then you have a better chance of finding someone you click with. So going into the summer, if you’re teenage daughter is one of those girls who doesn’t have any close friends right now, get them involved in activities. Sign them up for camps (if it’s not too late). Just expose them to people, as safely as you feel comfortable with at this point. The more people they come across, the more likely it will be that they’ll find their people. Same holds true for when school starts in the fall. Encourage them to sign up for activities, clubs, sports, etc. Just get them around more people and the friendships will follow. I promise.
Now I realize there’s a lot more about friendships to discuss, but that will have to be for another time. The social lives of teenage girls are so complex and sometimes as a parent we find ourselves thinking, is this normal? Which is totally normal! So stay tuned for future content on this topic!
Shannon Odell, PsyD is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lake Oswego, Oregon