From Popular to No Friends

February 28, 2016

7 min read


My teenaged daughter is becoming a recluse and I’m spending all my spare time with her.

Dear Emuna,

My middle-schooler is going through a difficult phase. She finds her friends shallow (they are all very affluent and very focused on it) and only wants to be with me. I feel badly so I spend all my spare time with her, which causes my other children and my marriage to suffer. I’m also concerned that she went from being very popular to having no friends. Despite my constant encouragement, she refuses to go out and insists that she has a lot of school work to do (the academic pressure at her school is very great). I’m very worried. Can you advise me please?

Overwhelmed Mom

Dear Overwhelmed,

Without meeting your daughter I can only speak in generalities but there are a lot of issues in play here and whether it is “normal” adolescence or something that requires professional intervention is something that you are in the best position to determine. Let’s begin by establishing that the onset of adolescence frequently leads to more than just hormonal changes. As our children try to figure out who they are and shape their identities, they may try on different friendships. Many of my own children moved from one group of friends to another around 8th or 9th grade and then remained lifelong friends with their new group. This is a perfectly normal behavior. Your daughter gets extra points for recognizing that she doesn’t want to be with a group of girls whose values are superficial. It sounds like she is in the process of making that change.

The difficulty you are facing is that instead of finding a group of girls who are more like her (there must be some!) she has found you. And you are indulging this. We are not our children’s friends and we cannot allow ourselves to be seduced into playing that role.

There is something very appealing about the need and desire they have for our company (especially as we see so many of our friend’s children pulling away) but it is not healthy and it is up to us to set firm but loving boundaries. Obviously there are moments of crisis where we drop everything and we are there for our children but if this is a nightly occurrence, something is wrong. You must gently dis-attach yourself from her and let her fully experience the consequences of her choice. It’s not bad for her to feel lonely; it opens up conversation and decisions. She can now choose which she prefers – a different group of friends, a return to the old ones or just plain being by herself. If you are always with her, you are inhibiting her ability to choose.

I’m also concerned about your use of the word “popular”. I think that is a damaging and potentially destructive idea. Being popular is not a Jewish value or a goal to strive for. We want to be valued, we want to be liked, we want to behave with dignity and generosity and warmth and caring. But being popular is not a goal in and of itself. You need to let go of that idea. If your daughter can find one or two good friends, she could be very happy.

As you mentioned, your other children and your marriage are suffering from all the time that you are pouring into this one child. That’s not good for anyone – including you and the daughter you are trying to help. You need to pull back – despite the tears and the begging – and give her some space. And you need to give yourself some room to be a mother to your other children and a wife to your husband. She is more likely to feel better about herself and her life when she has a clear sense of boundaries around your relationship than when you are available at her beck and call. And you need to remember that this is her life to live, her options to choose and her mistakes to make. You can’t protect her from that and you hurt both of you when you try.

Am I Depressed?

Dear Emuna,

I guess I am like most people. I have some very good things in my life and some very challenging things in my life. There is no particular crisis at this given moment although there are many situations that I wish were better. I think this is normal and I hesitated before writing to you. But my husband said I need some advice. Sometimes I cope well and feel optimistic about the future. And other times I just feel discouraged and depressed. Do I need medication? More classes on trust? How can I get past this?

Trying to Grow

Dear Trying to Grow,

Good for you for trying and for facing your situation head-on. I feel like I am constantly giving my letter writers a caveat about the efficacy of my advice given the paucity of information. I’m really afraid of steering someone wrong or, God forbid, treating a serious situation as trivial (and even vice versa!). Therefore my advice to you is very general and limited. Is it possible that you would benefit from some “pharmaceutical intervention”? It certainly is. While those with clinical depression definitely need medication and those will mild depression can probably resolve it without, there is a whole amorphous middle area.

For some, talking out the situation and working on themselves can get them through it. For others, just recognizing that this is a normal phase (King Solomon said there is a “time to weep”) that will soon pass is enough to allow them to wait it out. For some, it’s a mid-life issue that requires introspection and for others perhaps some medication for a very limited time is the answer. There is no “one size fits all” solution. We don’t want to be too quick to jump to medication but we don’t want to stigmatize either; there are situations where it’s definitely worth it.

In addition, it is true (as you seem to know) that being optimistic and having trust is a state that requires effort, constant effort in fact. There is not a moment where we’ve “got it”. Life is a constant series of challenges, many of which require us to dip deep and work on our belief in God and our trust in Him. Sometimes we are more successful than others. But we just keep trying. Recognizing that this is the challenge of living can be a comfort. I try to learn every day a page or two from various books on belief and trust in God. It gives my day focus. Sometimes it leads to greater optimism; sometimes it prevents discouragement – and sometimes it doesn’t work at all! But the key is to keep ploughing ahead.

On the lighter side of things, I recommend a date night with your husband or a girlfriend. In addition to working on ourselves and deepening our philosophical foundation, sometimes we need a “time to laugh”, a time that takes us out of ourselves and our daily concerns. Sometimes that’s even just exercise or reading a book or a solo activity. But it’s just as necessary as the first two actions because it may rejuvenate us and give us the strength we need to continue to fight this battle.

It’s the good battle, it’s the only battle – and we’re not alone. It’s the battle for life that the Almighty wants us to fight. So your last strategy should be prayer and asking for His help.

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