Dear Therapist:

I am a parent of a 9th grade girl in a large mainstream high school. She is trying to find her footing in a long lasting friendship and is starting to get to know a few girls. But because she is a very friendly girl, she is nice to the girls who aren't as socially gifted.

The problem with this is when her friendliness gets in the way of spreading her wings, since these girls cling to her in an unhealthy way. While she doesn't want to hurt these girls, she wants to have a circle of friends that don't make her feel stifled.

My daughter asked her teacher for suggestions. The teacher said one or two not as socially gifted won't affect the friendship, but in this case it does.

Do the panelists have any advice of what she can do or say while preventing the other girls from hurting, all the while giving her and her friends much needed space?



Although you described the situation in some detail, there are nuances that are unclear or absent. For instance, do other girls cling to your daughter in groups or only individually? Do these girls have their own groups or other friends? Do they cling to your daughter largely within the school setting or do they try and connect after school as well?

Your daughter appears to be concerned by the way in which certain girls cling to her. In what way are their overtures unhealthy? Are these girls aware of the unhealthy nature of their attachments? Are these mostly unhealthy for your daughter (not necessarily for these other girls)? In what way do these girls negatively affect your daughter’s relationships within her circle of friends? Is it the nature of her relationship with these socially inept girls, the fact that she is friendly with these girls altogether, or a sense of intrusion into your daughter’s circle?

As you can see, there are many factors that could affect the nature of my response. On a basic level, it seems that your daughter is torn between her own friendship needs and her caring nature. She wants to have a group of like-minded friends, but she also doesn’t want to hurt the feelings of girls who may be very sensitive to rejection.

To some extent, it comes down to a matter of degree. There are many people who are caring, but are able to nonetheless let others down in a kind manner. They are able to set boundaries that clarify the nature and extent of their relationships. For others, it can be difficult to thread that needle. It can feel very difficult to let anyone down to any extent whatsoever.

If your daughter falls into this latter category, she needs to understand that she cannot be everything to everyone. This sense is often related to a need to be perfect (perfectly nice, perfectly smart, perfectly interesting etc.), in turn related to sense of self.

Two main themes pervade adolescent high school years: social connections and development of a sense of self. These themes are closely interrelated. Although friendships are important, the need to belong (i.e., to a group) is one way in which teenagers attempt to define who they are. Viewing your daughter’s needs through this prism, her inner conflict can be seen as related to self-esteem. To some degree, she wants to define herself through her relationships and friend groups. However, as a younger child she may have learned to define herself as a caring person. These two may now—for the first time—be in direct opposition to one another. If she bolsters her sense of caring, it will be at the expense of a newer sense of belonging.

This may be the first time that your daughter has been faced with a truly difficult decision that she needs to make on her own. Appropriate choices will depend on the nature of each relationship. They also exist on a spectrum. It is unlikely that the exact same response is appropriate to all circumstances. In one relationship, your daughter may be able to set clear boundaries. In another, she may be forced to cut off all contact. In yet another, she might be able to leave it as is.

Of course, as a young girl your daughter may not have the experience, wisdom, and understanding to determine differing courses of action for each situation. She may feel it unfair that she be required to. She might want a simple solution to her problem. If she is given advice by someone that she trusts, she may willingly follow it.

I wonder, however, whether this is something that she should deal with largely on her own. Doing so can help her learn how to navigate difficult situations in her life. Naturally, asking for advice and discussing her thoughts and decisions with parents, teachers, or mentors can be an integral part of this process. This could be viewed as guidance rather than simple advice. This would include helping her gain insight into her motivations and emotional needs.

From a practical standpoint, the longer it takes for your daughter to set the boundaries that she deems appropriate, the more difficult it will likely be for her to disentangle herself from unhealthy relationships. This would seem to necessitate swift action on her part. The school year is almost over though. Your daughter may find it more palatable to use the summer as a buffer, allowing her to apply her “New Years resolutions” at the start of the next school year.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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