Middle School Friends and Enemies: Navigating the Social World of Your Child


I don’t know if we should be concerned or not about our daughter’s situation.  Although she has been part of a group of “friends” for many years, she doesn’t have any close friends.  No one to call a best friend.  She occasionally invites someone shopping or to the movies and has a sleepover with the group, but she rarely gets invited by them.  She was involved in group sports in middle school, but decided not to continue in high school because she feels the girls were excluding her and she wasn’t having fun anymore. In general she is a sweet happy kid but has always needed to be pushed where friendships are concerned.  The few girls that she really likes are involved in a lot of activities which leaves her alone a lot. We do talk about this and I know she is saddened by her situation.   I have been encouraging her to reach out to others.  Should we push her to be more involved in school related activities, which would possibly create new friendships?  Or do we leave it alone and hope in time she will find her way?


I am grateful to the parent who asked this question.  As a psychologist, I have heard versions of this question asked for many years.  As a parent of a middle school daughter, I have experienced this question myself! Please know that my response comes from my own thinking about this issue, additional reading about it, and then talking with other parents who have also wondered about what to do in similar situations they have had with their daughters.

As part of your question, you ask, “Do we leave it alone and hope in time she will find her way?”  Because I am inclined to interpret your daughter’s sadness and social uncertainty as indirect communications from her, I would not be inclined to “leave it alone” at this point.  Instead, I would encourage you to pursue two general aspects of this whole situation:  (1) your daughter’s individual experience and perception of the problem, and (2), the social environment or context in which this “situation” exists.

With regard to the first area – your daughter’s individual experience – try to assess how much of this situation is associated with your daughter’s own, increasingly negative perception of the problem.  I would want to know more about your daughter’s “sadness.” If there is a chronically negative mood or sense of irritability, even a low-grade depression may account for why and how she perceives this problem as she does.  If she is depressed, then professional help is certainly recommended to help your daughter with this social dilemma, and to ensure that she does not fall deeper into unhappiness and a sense of gloom. To get some assessment of your daughter’s “sadness,” explore it in three primary ways:

  1. Intensity:  How sad is she?  Use a 1 – 10 scale to get a quick read on how mildly, moderately or severely your daughter has been experiencing these feelings.  Moderate to severe “ratings” could suggest that she is in the grip of a mood problem that feels bigger than her ability to break free of it.  She could need professional help to sort this out.  Your daughter could be experiencing a low-grade depression, a condition that would also explain some of her lack of initiative with peers and possible feelings of lower self-esteem.
  2. Frequency:  How often is she feeling this way?  Is it most of the time that she feels this way, particularly in relation to initiating or maintaining friendships?  You mention that your daughter “has always needed to be pushed where friendships are concerned.”  This suggests that her social style may have always been a hesitant and timid style – one that may have set her up, to some degree, to feel more anxious and “sad” in response to awkward or confusing social dynamics that are so common to middle and high school peer groups.
  3. Duration: For how long has she been feeling this way?  Has your daughter’s sadness gone from an initial reaction to being left out a few times – to a more chronic sadness characterized by more social withdrawal and a reluctance to take initiative with peers? Has this pattern developed over time?  Has this situation seemed to be getting worse?

If your daughter’s sadness seems “bigger than her ability to break free of it,” and also seems to occur frequently and/or pervasively, then seeking professional help is strongly recommended.  On the other hand, if your daughter seems OK with regard to these primary symptom-assessment areas, then it could be that this particular group of peers is comprised of girls who present with more difficult and confusing dynamics, and that some other adult assistance may be necessary.

With regard to the second key aspect of this situation – the social context – I would recommend a few initial steps.  Since most of your daughter’s social experience occurs in the context of school, it makes sense that you talk with your daughter’s guidance counselor, or with any teacher who knows your daughter well.  Do they see the same things you see?  Does your daughter present a similarly timid or withdrawn social style when she is at school? Can these adults tell you anything about the social patterns of this class of girls….or about these girls in particular?  Meeting with school adults accomplishes two important things.  It alerts key adults at school to be on the lookout for your daughter.  It also implies that you are interested in a more cooperative relationship with these other adults who see and interact with your daughter every day.  Sometimes, just mentioning problems like this to the right adults at school helps THEM to begin thinking of reasonable solutions, of possible ways they can recruit your daughter to become more involved at school, thereby increasing her chances for more social interaction.

Another step that I highly recommend is that you read Rachel Simmons’s book, Odd Girl Out:  Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.  This book has been described as “a wakeup call to all of us who care deeply about girls’ development,” particularly with regard “to the girls who struggle every day with friendships” (Susan Wellman, president of the Ophelia Project).  I suspect that this book will be helpful in giving you AND your daughter a sense of the normal struggles of many, many middle and high school girls.  Having read it at a time when my own daughter was struggling with similarly awkward social dynamics, I found it both informative and useful in helping my wife and me to be guides for our daughter as she worked through similarly awkward dynamics with her peers at school.

Your daughter seems to be struggling in some ways, but she also seems to be somewhat resilient.  As much as she may be holding her own, she also seems lonely and unsure of what to do about it.  The need to connect – to belong and be accepted by one’s peers – is deeply wired into our social makeup.  If your daughter is content with a more introverted style, then not having a “best friend” right now may be more tolerable for her, and she might be more comfortable being alone more of the time.  However, if your daughter is eager for more social connections, and feels saddened and frustrated by her current inability to make those connections happen, then her talking with a psychologist or social worker could also be a useful step to take.  Exploring the patterns of past social experiences and experimenting with specific strategies to help your daughter take appropriate social risks and to learn more about how to initiate and maintain friendships would be useful themes to consider with a professional counselor.

Should you “push her to be more involved in school related activities?”  While encouraging your daughter to be more involved with school activities would be fine, I would not “push” her in these ways until the reasons for her not making real and mutual connections with her peers are more determined.  While it is possible that depression or particularly difficult group dynamics may account for this persistent problem, it is also possible that certain kinds of thinking and learning styles may also be at work here.  For example, one of the clear manifestations of a nonverbal learning disability is a noted pattern of difficulties in the area of social functioning – specifically in the area of initiating and maintaining interpersonal relationships.  For these students, making common, give-and-take, even superficial interactions is usually more difficult because they frequently miss or misinterpret the nonverbal aspects of all communication, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, eye movements and body postures.  Since only about 35% of all communication is verbal, missing out on so much of the nonverbal context puts these individuals at a distinct disadvantage.  I am not saying that your daughter presents with this disability, but rather that this is one of the reasons why I would be reluctant to “push” your daughter into social arenas until the reasons for her difficulty in this area were more clear.  If the problem has not improved with your encouragement and her subsequent follow-through, then additional consultation and/or psychological testing may be appropriate.

I hope this response is helpful.  I know how difficult it can be to watch a child struggle in these ways.  Consider the steps I have suggested.  You are wise NOT to leave this situation alone, as doing so could lead to your daughter’s becoming more sad and frustrated than she has already been.  Good luck!


David L. Gleason, Psy.D.
Licensed Psychologist