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How to Help When Your Teen Is Being Left Out

To celebrate the culmination of middle school, the eighth graders at Tracy Brown’s* school always go on a class trip to Washington, DC. Tracy was really looking forward to the trip—more for the social aspect than for the monument tours. She assumed, naturally, that she’d share a room with Allison, one of her best friends since childhood.

Allison, however, didn’t have quite the same expectation, it turned out. Without Tracy’s knowledge, she had formed her own room—leaving Tracy out.

Being left out is never easy … for teenagers or their parents.

Devastated at being left out, Tracy called her mom, Lisa, in tears. Outraged and betrayed on her daughter’s behalf, Lisa thought: I need to get involved. She called up the mom—a friend, someone she’d known since their daughters’ kindergarten years—and explained the situation. “I’ll call you right back,” the mom said.

It’s been three years, and Lisa is still waiting for that call back. “First, I was irate at the daughter, then I was furious at the mom,” she says, with anger still in her voice.

To teenagers, friendships are everything. They provide both social support and proof of social status. When the bond is strong, teenagers feel stronger. “The social support that derives from friendship is a big contributor to a teen’s resiliency and well being,” says Dr. Tori Cordiano, a clinical psychologist and assistant director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Ohio.

So a friend’s betrayal cuts right to the bone.

Advice for When Your Teen is Being Left Out

As a parent, when your child is being left out, often the first instinct—as Lisa’s was—is to jump into the fight. Cordiano urges restraint. “It’s incredibly painful to see your child suffering, but as parents, you are usually only hearing one side of the story,” she says. Getting involved doesn’t allow your child to learn important coping strategies.

And with teenagers, stories and friendships change rapidly. “You don’t know where that relationship will go next week or next month or next year,” Cordiano explains. “If your teenager is back to being close buddies with that friend, it’s a hard spot to be in if you criticized him the day before.”

The best thing you can do in the moment, experts advise, is to listen—and later help your teen reframe the situation. “When teenagers, especially girls, are feeling rejected, they have a tendency to go inside their heads and start thinking things, like, I’m not good enough. I don’t fit in. There’s something wrong with me,” says Dr. Tim Jordan, a Missouri-based developmental and behavioral pediatrician.

As a parent, you can stop this snowball effect, by asking questions like, “It sounds like you are taking this personally and making it about you. Is it possible that it’s not about you? What else could it mean? How could you find out?”

But if you see this same sort of situation re-occurring with a friend of your teen, it’s ok to share your observations. “You can say something like: It seems like a lot of times when you hang out with these friends, you often feel hurt. Have you noticed that?” says Cordiano. “You want to reinforce to your teenagers that relationships should make you feel better. If friendship issues are making you feel worse, they are probably not the healthiest relationships.”

And though many teens pine for a large social circle of friends, research has shown that the happiest teens are the ones who have a couple of friends—or even just one close friend—that they feel they can trust, says Cordiano.

Being Impartial On Friendship Issues

One of the reasons the topic of friendships is so particularly sensitive for parents is because they haven’t totally gotten over their own friendship scars. “I think for moms and dads, almost none of us emerge unscathed from social interactions as teenagers. And we might still be dealing with friendship issues now,” Jordan says.

And without even being aware, parents might be transferring their own feelings of anger and rejection onto their child’s situation. It’s something to look out for, Jordan advises.

Ever since the Washington DC incident, Lisa has stopped trying to play the role of mediator in her daughter’s friendship drama. “I’ve seen a lot of adult friendships ruined over that,” she says. As Lisa knows, the need for friendships and social support doesn’t stop once you leave the teenage years.

But that doesn’t mean hearing the stories gets any easier. “To this day, it’s really hard to stay impartial,” she admits.

*all names have been changed

Rebecca Meiser

Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio, and frequent contributor to Your Teen.