This week’s subject comes from the life of one of my other children – my daughter. This has been a continuous struggle for her in her teenage years, and probably before to be honest, and now is continuing in her early 20’s. Friendships! The dreaded looming darkness that always seems to bring unhappiness and confusion for her. Over the years she has managed to connect with the most vulnerable people who, like her, are looking for a place to belong but looking in all the unhealthiest places.
Why is that?
Well, you will have noticed if you live or work with vulnerable young people, she is not alone in this. As much as you try to pull them apart and encourage ‘healthy’ friendships they just gravitate towards each other, and it seems a bulldozer could not prize them apart.
I kind of understand why. We all do this to some extent. We tend to connect with those we feel we can identify with, that we feel we have things in common, or that we feel are on our level in some way. As we get older, I think we understand that difference is a good thing and can handle more diverse relationships where the other persons responses and challenges don’t affect us so much. Not so for young people and particularly those who have low self-esteem, shame issues and lack of trust.
I remember when she was younger, I tried to orchestrate friendships and they would seem to work, but when the adults pulled out the children just never choose to hang out together. Once they reach a certain age it is very hard to control who they see and how they are influenced by them.
The most difficult thing I find is that my daughters default stance is to not trust others. This is something that comes from having an insecure attachment and being let down so much in her very early years. When you know someone will meet your needs and be there for you then you can trust the world around you. When you don’t have that then your default is mistrust. So, in my daughter’s case she then chooses relationships with others that rely on trust, but they let her down or she thinks they do, and it just confirms what she already believes “People can’t be trusted – I will never trust anyone again!”.
Recently she has gone through a very difficult experience that has knocked her ability to trust even more and unfortunately the other young people involved are feeding into her anxiety and upset – which is generally the way. After many years of trying to help her through these scenarios I have lost my patience. Not with her, but with these relationships and trying to make them work. They just don’t! So, what is the answer now for her? Well, I think as we get older, we then have more agency to move away from unhealthy relationships and to really make our own choices. Whether she can yet I don’t know. The pull is very strong to engage in the social media taunts and to react to the stirring made by others.
When they are at school it’s very hard to just ignore others and to move away from the drama that ensues. I believe as adults supporting them, we need to be more involved in these incidents and to not leave it to them to work it out. They cannot do that, and often the longer we leave them to it the more damage is made and as mentioned earlier it erodes self-esteem and compounds the sense of shame.
So, here are my main learnings from years of navigating this very difficult road of friendships for my daughter: –
- As much as you try, you can’t pull them apart – accept that, but also work on raising self-esteem so that they can see how they are being treated and make the changes themselves.
- Step in quickly and stop any long-lasting damage.
- Encourage other relationships too that are healthy. Accept the difficult relationships, but balance that with others, even if they are orchestrated by adults.
- Watch programmes about friendships and talk about the issues together. We have watched many teenage films over the years that have highlighted the difficulties in friendships and what to do about them.
- Above all, work on having a healthy relationship yourself with the young person, repair when things go wrong and model how people should be treated.
There are so many difficulties with friendships, and I know I’m not giving amazing strategies here, but I am saying stick with it – walk alongside the young people in your life, as they travel this rocky road to hopefully some healthy, functional relationships in the future.