Help, My Teen Girl Isn’t Fitting In
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.
By way of background: My 14 year old (who has some struggles with anxiety and depression which are fairly well under control with therapy and medication, but pop up at times—usually when she worries that I may be disappointed or angry with her), has a lovely group of girlfriends. They consider themselves “weird,” not popular girls, and this is a badge of pride for them. They are a crazy, fun bunch and when my girl is with them, she is the best of herself—funny, confident, loud and creative. My girl is also a dancer, taking classes 4-5 days per week and dancing on a team at the same studio. She has known these girls since kindergarten. With them, she is withdrawn, introverted, nose-in-a-book or iPod, and defensive. I take her to the dance competitions and watch the team chatting, laughing, etc., and my girl sitting off to the side by herself. When I ask her about this, she tells me, “They don’t like me.” This may be the case for some of them, although I have only ever seen one be unkind. Rather, most of the girls seem to act as if she’s not there—and it seems like perhaps my girl brought this on herself. I have seen several of the girls reach out to her and she either doesn’t seem to hear them or she rebuffs them quietly. She has 4 more years with this team and loves the dancing part of it. But the social part makes her (and me) miserable—I want to see her being herself the way she is with her girlfriends. When I try to encourage her to talk with the other dancers, join them for a snack or whatever, she hears it as criticism. The kicker is that more than 1/2 of her social group is going to a different school next year. While I know they’ll still text and call, the relationships will change. My girl’s safety net won’t be with her at school. I am worried that she doesn’t know how/doesn’t want to make new friends. How can I encourage her to make new friends, be friendlier with the dance team, get her nose out of the book/iPad and be social without it seeming like criticism? I want her to be the happy, confident girl I see with her friends—even when they aren’t around!
Ohhhhh, this sounds so familiar to me. It can be hard to watch when your child struggles with fitting in, especially when you’ve seen her do it and really blossom under the right circumstances. I really feel you, here. You just want her to be happy, and it seems weird that this situation is so… not.
That said, let me hit you with a few of (I think) important points before getting to the meat of it all.
First: Just because you’ve not seen these girls be mean to her doesn’t mean is hasn’t happened (or isn’t still happening). Maybe you don’t remember (or didn’t have any experiences in this vein), but I’ve seen some teenage girls mastering the art of being (let’s be real here) obnoxious little jerks in the sneakiest of ways. I spent years referring to one of my daughter’s classmates as Eddie Haskell because she was always so delightful to my face while tormenting my kid behind my back. That’s just… what they sometimes do. Furthermore, it’s been my experience that subtle cruelty is, in many ways, harder to bear than more overt meanness, which is often exactly the intent. Maybe no one has knocked her down and taken her lunch money, but in the world of teenage girls, a glance, a snicker, an exchanged whisper… each of those can be devastating. If your daughter says these girls don’t like her, I would assume that something has happened to make her feel that way. It may not be a big deal by our adult standards, but it was to her. She doesn’t feel safe being herself with them right now.
Second: Whether or not she “brought this on herself” (and see above; I suspect she has a good reason for at least the start of her behavior, even if it has since become a bad habit), even if you haven’t used those words with her, of course she’s going to feel defensive if that’s your position. I know you don’t mean it as a criticism, but she will feel like it’s one, and/or that you’re invalidating whatever it was that made her feel like these girls don’t accept her. At the end of the day, you want to help, but you also want her to know you’re on her side. There’s a difference between, “Well you’re just being silly, make these changes and everything will be fine” and “Let’s talk about what you might be able to do to feel more comfortable at dance, because the only person you can control is yourself.” It’s subtle; and again, let me reiterate that I understand you’re not blaming her, but 14 is a hard age, this is a hard situation, and your goal should be to remind her she’s fabulous no matter what.
Third: Is the social part truly making her miserable? I can hear how distressed you are, and I’m sure it’s not fun for her, either, but has she accepted this is how it is or does she complain about it to you? Has she talked about quitting the team? Has there been discussion of finding a different team? Allow me to—ever-so-gently, because this is not a criticism, and it’s something I’ve done a lot, myself—suggest that you may be more upset about this than she is. Maybe. Make sure your Mama Bear instincts aren’t leaping to defend her more than she needs defending, is my point. If she’s truly miserable, by all means, proceed towards a solution. If she’s just… annoyed, or non-plussed… then you should maybe just let it go.
All of that said: If she’s in therapy, hooray, you already have a neutral 3rd party at your disposal to help unravel this problem! (Because you’re Mom, and Mom will always misstep because that’s what we do, and because we’re emotionally invested in the outcome, which doesn’t make for great objectivity.) I would ask for either a family session or a check-in with the therapist to say, “Hey, we have this situation, I’m not sure how concerned I should be, can you address it?” At that point, you have someone who isn’t tied up in it who can ask questions and discuss solutions.
From where I’m sitting, there are multiple possible scenarios:
1) It’s not that bad; she’s okay with how things are right now.
2) It’s pretty bad, but she really loves this studio and doesn’t want to leave.
3) It’s pretty bad, but she feels there’s no other option for dance than this studio.
4) It’s bad and she feels utterly stuck and unable to make any sort of change.
If it’s option 1, you’ll just have to back off and practice your deep breathing when you see her pulling the loner routine at competitions. If it’s 2 or 3, it may be time to start talking about what other logistical options exist—are there any other studios or other kinds of dance she might be willing to explore? And if it’s number 4, well, the therapist will have her work cut out for her/himself. Sometimes trying to take control feels scarier than feeling out of control, and that’s an issue that goes well beyond fitting in at dance class. The bottom line here is about her self-esteem and how she handles difficulty. Maybe with the therapist helping her get to what’s underneath this specific situation, you’ll see a resolution emerge alongside a resilient, more confident kid.
Regardless of the rest, you can do two things while you wait for things to improve: Love the stuffing out of her (I know you already do), and make sure she gets plenty of time with the friends who do bring out the best in her. My son’s closest buddies don’t go to his school, and I fretted endlessly when I saw him keeping to himself. Know what? He’s made some new friends at school, but his old posse is still where he’s most himself. That’s okay! They get together on weekends and text and talk on the phone during the week. I had to let go of my “ideal” and accept he’s figured out what’s working for him.
I’m wishing the very best for you and your daughter. Good luck!
Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.