Lonely Teen After a Move: Time to Intervene?
Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.
A year ago our family moved from a city to a rural area about 4 hours away, in the same state. My husband, 7-year-old, and I are enjoying the new pace of life, but my almost 14-year-old still seems to be struggling and I’m at a loss as to what I should do, or if I should do anything about it at all.
My concern is that she does not have one single friend in our new town. Before we moved I allowed her to set up a Facebook page (that we monitor) because she was really torn up about leaving her friends, but now I’m wondering if that was a mistake. All she wants to do is spend her free hours interacting with her old friends online. Meanwhile, these girls’ lives in our old town are broadcast on Facebook, and seeing pictures of them playing soccer or going to parties together seems to upset my daughter and makes her feel left out.
She occasionally complains about being lonely, but refuses to join any of the (admittedly, few) activities at school and declines invitations to dances or even to sit with people at lunch. She’s just totally disinterested in these kids to the point of being stand-offish. This is a small town and I’m worried she’s going to alienate every single potential friend before she even starts high school. At home she’s generally pleasant to be around, but she is always alone and always begging for more computer time. I can’t tell if this is actually a problem, or if I’m just creating one by wishing she were more social and integrated in our community, like she was in our old city.
We thought time might fix this but we’re now a year in with no change in her attitude or social status. Do I just need to sit back and let her keep being lonely, or should I get involved in some way?
Is there anything harder than watching our kids be unhappy? I don’t think so. I hear your worry here loud and clear, and I completely empathize with your desire to “fix” this, somehow.
Let’s discuss a few different things, here. First: I would say 14/end-of-middle-school is kind of the bubble between “try to fix this” and “it’s time to step back.” We’re not talking about your daughter being in any real danger, and we are talking about her figuring out how to manage her social life, and so this age is where simply deciding how to proceed becomes difficult. If you’re witnessing what seems to be real depression—if her grades are suffering, you’re seeing mood/appetite/sleep changes—then action is required, of course. I’m sure even a rural community has some options for finding her a therapist, and even if you don’t feel she’s truly depressed, it may be worth asking her if she’d be interested in having someone to talk to who’s a neutral third party. But if she’s just… mildly lonely, which is what it sounds like, at this age you run the risk of upsetting her further if you intervene.
At the same time, do an honest assessment of how she’s spending her non-school time, and then have a family meeting about being healthy and well-balanced (frame it however you’d like) which includes, if necessary, discussion of how everyone needs to have a hobby/activity, and brainstorming possibilities. We’ve always had a rule that you have to be involved in at least one group activity because unless you plan to become a hermit, working with others is a skill to cultivate. Whether it’s a sport or a club or a job… well, those are details to work out within your family. If she does nothing but go to school and get on the computer, I think you are okay saying, “Let’s find something you’ll enjoy, but you need to do something.”
Second, the best defense for any kid, really, but especially one who maybe doesn’t have a solid social space at school, is for home to be a safe and loving place. I’m sure it already is, but if you start nagging her (not saying you’re a nag, but she may perceive any meddling here as nagging) about the friends thing, will that change her perception of home as her soft place to land? It’s something to consider.
Third, our kids today live online. Don’t regret the Facebook page. Don’t get too frustrated about her time online. If she didn’t have that—if she was a teenager back when we were teens—she’d be writing letters or talking on the phone. She’s doing what feels comfortable, right now, and while it may be holding her back from forming new friendships, in your eyes, it’s much more likely the effect (of missing her old pals) rather than the cause (of the stand-offishness). I don’t think her connections with her old friends are a barrier to making new ones; I suspect they’re a comfort to her, and without them, she’d be even unhappier right now.
And fourth, unless your community is really tiny, next fall she’ll head into high school with some more new kids from at least one other middle school, right? Even if it’s just the same group of kids, the summer before high school tends to bring changes and shifts in alliances and everyone feels new and unsure. It may be that when high school begins she branches out a little, meets some new kids, reconsiders some activities, etc. I’d go so far as to say it’s likely. It’s not that far off, either. If I were you, I might start looking into what she could spend her summer doing that would likely get her spending time with kids she’ll be with in high school next year—whether that’s a camp, a volunteer gig, etc.—and present possibilities under the guise of “here’s something to stay busy” rather than pointing out that it may expand her social horizons.
Finally, make sure your yardstick is truly your daughter’s needs rather than “what’s normal.” (Please note that I say this with an abundance of compassion and gentleness, as I often fret when my kids are different, even if it doesn’t bother them one bit.) Maybe right now she’s occasionally missing her old friends but is basically okay. Make sure you’re seeing what’s really going on and not your own fears for her adjustment. Some (a lot?) of teens are good with having acquaintances at school and feeding their deeper connection needs elsewhere, and that’s okay if it works for them. From my own life: When my son returned to public high school after homeschooling, I worried most about his social life, and the reality is that he has not made deep social connections at school (as I feared). But—he has some involvement (and it took a couple of years for that to happen), and he continues to connect with his old friends (who are not at his school), and for the most part my worries are about my own hang-ups rather than his wellness. So take some time to step back and assess whether this is a different-than-you-pictured (but acceptable) trajectory, or truly worrisome.
Best of luck to you and your daughter. They change and evolve so much as teens—I suspect that by this time next year, she’ll be in a very different place.
Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.
Photo source: Photodune.netPublished March 10, 2016. Last updated August 2, 2018.