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Teenage daughter "rescuing" friends

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Dr. Markham,
I have a beautiful 15 year old daughter who seems to be TOO emotional invested in others. What I mean is that she seems to think that she is the only one able to solve her friends problems. She is a smart girl, but when I try to point out that she is too emotionally invested in these 'friends' and their problems, I am told that I wouldn't understand, she IS the ONLY one who can fix these people because they trust her.

The last one was a boy who was threatening suicide. When I tried to explain that suicide was a serious matter and that the best thing she could have done was get him professional help - I got yelled at for 15 minutes that I understood nothing, I was naive and that that would only make the situation worse. By the way - this particular boy - is in my opinion a bit of a story teller - something I would never tell my daughter.

How do I get her to disconnect and if she needs to worry about something - worry about herself. I appreciate that she is empathetic and sympathetic, but not to the detriment of her own health. I have told my friends that she will be the one who brings home every stray, because she feels sorry for them. I don't want her to become cold and callus, but she needs to protect herself emotionally, how do I teach her to do that. My first thought was to limit her from these friends, but I don't know if that's the right thing to do. Any suggestions would be helpful.


Dear Carol,
Your daughter sounds like a wonderful human being who cares deeply for others. You don't say why you believe she is "too" emotionally invested, or why her way of relating to her friends is bad for her, but I trust that as her mother you see some negative effect on her.

15 year olds are often extremely invested in their friends, to the point that these friendships constitute almost a second family. While teens can get great benefits out of these close relationships, they are harmful if they reduce the teen's connection to his or her own family. You don't say this is happening, so I will assume your relationship with your daughter is fine. Sadly, it sounds as though some of her friends don't have good relationships with their parents; thus your daughter feels she is the only one they trust.

In other words, while this boy may not actually have been suicidal so much as attention seeking -- and you and I really can't judge that -- these kids may well have real problems, and no adult they trust to help. Like so many teens who don't feel known by and deeply connected to their parents, they rely on each other.

Of course, their friends are often not mature enough to judge when to go to an adult for help, and they are not developmentally equipped to be in a parental role, fostering the growth of another and putting their own needs second as parents must do. If your daughter is in that role with other kids, it isn't good for her, and it is a pale shadow of what those kids actually need.

Why would a fifteen year old end up in this position? Because she is a naturally empathic person (which is a major asset in life and relationships.) Because she cares about her friends, and their parents aren't there for them. Possibly because she has played the role of caretaker in her own family, with younger siblings or a sick or dependent parent.

Why would she stay in that position? Because she wants to be a good friend, and because she derives a sense of importance, a positive identity, from it. And because she doesn't have other friends, doesn't know how to break out of the pattern.

How can you intervene positively to change this dynamic? You mention "limiting" your daughter from spending time with these friends. I think that is tricky with a 15 year old, and that if she is really interwoven with these kids, as she sounds, you could end up with a major rebellion on your hands.

I want to add that I think prohibiting contact with a group of friends is sometimes necessary when the norm in that peer group is destructive, for instance, if the kids drink, use drugs, have casual sex, or treat each other badly. But I would not take that intervention lightly and I would try to disguise it.

The most effective intervention besides moving is a separation that is not obviously aimed at the peer group, such as a long vacation with a parent, in which the parent really focuses on reawakening a close relationship with the child.

Short of that, I would recommend that you cultivate your relationship with your daughter so that she is more open to your influence and less in need of seeking a sense of importance from her peers. If you begin by offering your empathy regarding her care-taker role, she might open up to you about it.

Please read the section on Talking with Your Kids on this website and don't start the conversation until you think you can be supportive and nonjudgmental of her friends. Ask how her friend is doing -- is he still feeling suicidal? Observe that she's a good friend to have nursed him through that. Ask how she handled it. Admire her skillfulness. Sympathize with the boy that he couldn't go to his parents. Ask if she was afraid. The more you empathize, the more she will open up.

This accomplishes two critical things: it helps the two of you get closer. And it allows your daughter to acknowledge to herself, and maybe even aloud, that maybe she is in over her head, and that while it makes her feel important it really is an unfair burden for a 15 year old. This probably won't all happen in one conversation, but if you keep connecting, it probably will happen, once she doesn't feel she has to "guard" her commitment to being a good friend from a mother who "doesn't understand."

After good communication is positively established -- and I really mean after, or this will be perceived as lecturing -- you can begin to add your own views about friendship, such as the need for a healthy give and take, rather than one person always care-taking for the other. You might take the opportunity to observe, when you see a movie together, the kind of friendships depicted: do the friends show their caring? Do they have healthy boundaries?

You might also note that humans can't actually "fix" each other. All we can really do is love people as they are, which gives them an opportunity to heal their own wounds.

But not every relationship is good for us, and we are, ultimately, the only ones responsible for keeping ourselves safe and cared for, physically and emotionally. It is our responsibility to choose friends who are good for us, who can love and nurture us as we love and nurture them.

Kids learn this, mostly, by being in healthy relationships at home, but also from experiences with peers in high school. Your empathic support is exactly the help your daughter needs to master this life lesson.

Blessings to you and your daughter, and her friends,
Dr Laura

Dr. Laura,

Thank you for your suggestions - she and I do have a great relationship and we do talk a lot about what is going on - it seems to me that she only lashes out when she is in over her head and what you said made me realize that.

You are right about the friends having poor relationships at home and it is probably her empathic nature that keeps drawing these friends to her. I hear about these friends all the time and how they have been kicked out etc.

She is the youngest of two - nine years apart. My parenting approach is not one of I am the boss and you do as i say. I have always tried to be as empathetic to her situations and tried talking them out with her. Problem solving to find a satisfactory solution for all concerned.

She is an awesome kid who isn't into the vices that some of her friends are. She is the one who starts the interventions on friends who have gone too far down that path. I just feel awful for her when she seems so depressed by the situations her friends are in. But I guess as the mom I can't fix everything anymore. I just have to be there to walk her through it. Thanks again for helping me see what i can do for her and for reminding me what a truly great kid she really is.

-- Carol


Dear Carol,
I hope you know how special it is for the mother of a fifteen year old to say "She's an awesome kid who isn't into the vices some of her friends are." I hope moms of younger kids who are reading this and formulating their parenting approaches also notice that your parenting philosophy is empathy and problem solving for the good of all concerned. Research shows that's the approach that produces awesome kids!

It is a hard lesson that we can't shield our kids from pain, especially as they get older. But that empathic "envelope" we offer them is just as important for teens, because it gives them a safe way to sort out the kind of person they want to be and the choices they want to make. I know your daughter is learning from you at every step because you are keeping the communication channels open.
with admiration,

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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