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Painful Teen Friendship: What's a Mom to Do?

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QUESTION

Dear Irene,

My daughter, Amy, is 16 years old. She is a very sweet girl, a good student, and has a variety of interests like playing the flute, singing in the chorus, writing for the student paper and acting in school plays. She also has a part-time job at our local ice cream shop. She is a bit different than most kids because we live in a small town that is dominated by a certain clannish church (LDS), which we do not belong to, so she is a bit of an outcast. She has about five to ten friends. Her best friend for the past two years has been Heidi, an LDS girl that shares her interests in music and acting.

Last year, Heidi's divorced parents began hurling accusations at each other over a custody dispute, so the local judge removed her from the home and put her into foster care. She wasn't allowed unsupervised contact with either parent, not even phone calls. Amy and Heidi were extremely close when Heidi needed someone to help her get through this tough time. (Just as an aside, I'm not a fan of her mother. I think she is domineering and controlling. Also, she could have easily prevented her daughter from being placed in foster care by not allowing her boyfriend in her house and by playing nice with the judge.)

After a year in foster care, Heidi was allowed to live with her mother again. Now that she is back with her mom, she has distanced herself from Amy. Amy is upset and confused, not understanding what she did to deserve this. Heidi wrote Amy an e-mail saying that they have issues: Amy has more money than Heidi (because she has a job) which makes Heidi feel bad, and that Amy tries to make Heidi do immoral things (I asked what she was talking about since both girls are very good and aren't into drinking, drugs or sex, and Amy said that she had asked her to go to the free concert at the park that the town puts on and a local music festival, both of which are family-oriented events. Apparently the fact that people (adults) drink beer at these events was the problem!)

I don't know what to tell Amy to do. She doesn't want to lose her best friend since most of her life she has been without a best friend, but it really angers me that this girl is being so mean to the one person who was there for her through the roughest time in her life. I told Amy to stand up for herself, and not accept blame for things she isn't guilty of. I also explained that going to church isn't what makes you a moral person; it is how you treat others that makes you moral.

Do you have any advice that I could pass along to her?

Signed,
Helen

ANSWER

Dear Helen,

When children are young, parents often manage their relationships with other kids. As they get older, however, preadolescents and teens want to choose their own friends, sometimes from families that have different values than their own.

One of the tasks of these years is for a young, soon-to-be adult to learn the skills of being a good friend and how to assess whether a friend is being kind, loyal and trustworthy to them. There is a fine line between coaching your child and making decisions for them. While parents need to be open about expressing their own values they have to resist the impulse to jump in and solve problems for their teens unless their child's health or safety is being threatened.

The best thing you can do is talk to your daughter about friendships, in general, and try to get her to talk openly about her feelings about her best friend. It sounds like you have made a good start. Empathize with her disappointment and reassure her that friendships, even very good ones, change over time. You might point out that Heidi may need time to reconnect and bond with her mother and isn't able to be the friend she once was to Amy right now.

Explain to Amy that no friendship is perfect. Sometimes problems can be worked out and sometimes they can't. Remind her that she has other family and friends to fall back upon and the fact that she has made one best friend shows that she is capable of making another. In fact, her relationship with Heidi may improve after her friend feels more comfortable in her new setting.

It is painful for a parent to see their child being hurt by a friend but consider this a teachable moment that will serve Amy well in the future. Remember that your daughter has sound values and that kids are generally more resilient than their parents think they are.

I hope this is helpful.

My best,
Irene

TWITTER VERSION - Unless your teen's health or safety is at risk, resist the temptation to solve friendship problems for her.

Have a question about female friendships? Send it to The Friendship Doctor.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and has written a book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving A Break-up With Your Best Friend, which will be published by Overlook Press on September 20, 2009. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog.

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