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Parents can help when their normally social teens are being left out

A mom of a down-to-earth teen reaches out worried about her child. Her daughter’s friends seem to be leaving her out. She sees photos on Instagram and Snapchat of their parties; however, she is not invited to any of them. Her mom is unsure if she should be mad with her daughter’s friends or is her daughter pushing them away.

This particular teen is in her second year of secondary school. From the adult perspective she is a responsible, empathetic, smart, funny, responsible teen who any of us would hire in a minute to babysit our kids or employ in a part time job. However, with all of this going for her, this teen is struggling socially. What might be going on?

Why might a group of teens start excluding a former friend?

Explanation #1: Fed up with social drama

Sometimes, as children enter adolescence and friends grow and change, kids with great heads on their shoulder might find their own values at odds with those of their peer group. This shift might be ‘drama’. In this context, the term refers to highly compelling social chaos and relationship jockeying that typifies the interactions of many but not all friend groups during adolescence.

Some drama is to be expected from time to time. But persistent social drama is most likely to occur in peer groups where there is an imbalance of power amongst the members. In these groups we are likely to observe a few ‘Queen bees” or ‘masterminds’ whose opinions and wishes generally would hold more weight than those of their peers.

These top dogs could have more social cache for several reasons, including but not limited to cool clothing, quick verbal wit, athleticism, early entry to the dating world or even permissive parents whose failure to enforce rules permits these kids to take risks that would land their more close-parented peers in hot water. Meanwhile, consciously, or subconsciously, the less powerful group members are at the whims of the power kids.

If the sidekicks are in the good graces of their more powerful peers, their spot in the friend group is secure. Challenge the status quo, and a sidekick might become an outcast.

Explanation #2: Substance use is added to the mix

A second and perhaps equally addicting source of peer group shifts is the introduction of substance experimentation.

During school hours, when substance use is generally not occurring, the old friends’ group is likely to be happy to have the straight arrow kid around, especially since they have a long and probably happy history together. But she can start to feel increasingly like an outsider as conversation over lunch shifts towards parties and the stories her about experimenting with various substances, that she is not using.

There may parties that she attended but where she refrained from use, but there are also gatherings to which she was not invited. Often a peer group will start to leave off a non-user from the invite list when they know that substance use will take place.

The other children might not see this as an exclusion in the beginning as they justify their choice by saying, “Well, we know she wouldn’t be interested in coming to the party anyway. She doesn’t drink/vape.” Peers would see themselves as doing the non-user a favour. Whereas the non-user would prefer to be asked (cool enough to get an invite) and do the refusing themselves.

Be aware that this dynamic can generate intense peer pressure around drug and alcohol use. Rarely in the experimentation phase does a teen get openly teased for her/his refusal to try the substance- peers usually say they support their friend’s choice to abstain.

However, the non-using teen’s increasing feelings of isolation can be in direct conflict with their values around maintaining sobriety. This pull can sometimes cause kids to renege on their values to bolster a sense of belonging. Belonging is in itself important for all humans; however, it is particularly critical during adolescence. When belonging comes at the cost of one’s morals, self-esteem can suffer.

What to do?

Parents should demystify the above dynamics by sitting down, exploring and labelling what is in fact happening and normalise your child’s experience. Helping teens see the patterns in their behaviour, those of their peers and the emotional responses each party might have. And remind teens that ‘this too shall pass’.

When the storm is temporary, most teens have the energy to withstand the challenges. But when the pressure is unrelenting and long-term, kids’ moods can suffer, and we might see depressive symptoms or anxiety begin to set in. Contact your child’s pastoral team or mental health professional for support and guidance.

Rules of socialising do shift for the better as one gets older and out of early and middle adolescence. This information can help teens maintain conviction around their values and hopes for finding their own tribe eventually, even if it is later in secondary school or beyond.

The need for a tribe cannot be overstated during adolescence. However, finding one can be a challenge as interests and stages of emotional development change. Parents can assist teens in engaging with new peer groups, even if these groups are not at school. Trying new group activities and strengthening friendships within their sports teams, part-time jobs or even volunteering opportunities will widen their network.

Reiterating your families’ highest values around these matters and subtly remind your child that you are both on the same team. In doing so, parents can help their child feel a sense of belonging, even if it is not within a peer group at this time. This also opens the communication between you, which is imperative for future growth.

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