Care and Feeding

My Teen Is Horrible at Making Friends

How can I help?

A teenager sits against a row of lockers with his head in his hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Antonio_Diaz/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My children have had remote learning since last March. The district is offering a spring option of continue remote or partial in person, with the hybrid model being 10 hours per week of in-person learning, and the rest remote. My children, my wife, and I all agree hybrid would be best for everyone. My concern is my son. He’s in ninth grade, and he’s very bright but has had social challenges.

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As this is his first year of high school, he wants to go to in-person school to build a social network, which he currently lacks. However, to be blunt, he’s horrible at making new friends. He’s way too picky, and if a person doesn’t meet all of his criteria (i.e., into watching sports, plays sports, has good grammar, intelligent, low-maintenance), then he won’t give someone a chance. (It’s especially hard with the opposite gender, as he despises their makeup and views anyone else who dresses up as “high-maintenance.”)

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My question is how to help him temper his hopes about potential friendships—only about 40 percent of kids opted for return, so his potential pool of friends is already restricted, and again he’s super-picky to begin with, plus we have a lot of COVID restrictions for activity. I want to open him up to the idea of more “casual” friendships—like having one friend who likes watching basketball, one friend who likes eating pizza, etc. Thank you.

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—Friend Whisperer

Dear Friend Whisperer,

I hate to say this, but he’s probably going to have to learn this for himself. I don’t know how forthcoming your son is, but if my own experience with ninth grade boys is any indicator, I’m guessing he’s not amenable to your sage advice on how to make friends. Of course, you are absolutely correct: He should give more kids a chance and consider the possibility that he can be good friends with someone who does not share each and every one of his interests. But I’m guessing he doesn’t want to hear it from you.

Rather than offering him advice, listen to him. That’s honestly what teenagers want most of all! They want adults to listen intently, without interrupting and without giving advice. Ask him questions instead. Who did you meet in your classes? Tell me about them! He sounds nice—are you going to hang out with him more? I give you permission to ask leading questions that invite him to explore the possibilities. What might happen if you ate lunch with that kid from your biology class?

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You may find that his resistance to making friends stems from his own insecurities. Perhaps he is preemptively rejecting kids out of a fear that they will reject him. Now, maybe that’s not it at all; maybe he is just really picky. Either way, I think the best way to support him on this new adventure is to listen more and talk less.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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Both my kids—an 11-year-old in fifth and a 12-year-old in sixth grade (middle school)—have IEPs, and we changed to a new school district this fall. They know no one and have never been inside their respective school buildings. Neither is especially school motivated, and I am overwhelmed. The amount of work they are supposed to do for asynchronous learning is huge, and they can’t do it alone, but my husband and I are both trying to work. I hired their babysitter to help three days a week, but they both still failed the first quarter. The middle schooler had one bad experience in an unsupervised Zoom break out, and she now refuses to do any Zoom classes.

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When my 12-year-old daughter was in first grade, it took a year and an amazing set of teachers and staff at her old elementary school to get her through the school doors without crying, and with their help and support she LOVED school by fifth grade. She has both PTSD and anxiety disorders and is on medication for both. My fifth grader has anxiety disorder for which he takes medication, and receptive/expressive language disorder. He was in a private school for kids with special ed needs for two years making amazing gains, before he made an OK transition to public school. They both have occupational therapy, speech, and behavioral therapy weekly outside of school.

I have reached out to teachers, principals, and guidance counselors, and while everyone is kind, no one is suggesting any modifications. They’ve only offered academic contracts (what are those about?) to my middle schooler. My fifth grader’s teacher sent an email at the end of the quarter saying “A LOT” (her words, her all caps) of student assignments were late, so she’s “cracking down.”

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I’m overwhelmed. Do I pull them out and home-school them (not a great plan), or continue to let them fail? My only goal for this academic year is to keep their self-esteem and excitement about learning intact. How the heck do I even start?

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—Drowning

Dear Drowning,

I wish I could help more, but I want to be honest: I do not have a good answer. Sometimes, when it comes to IEP stuff, there is a clear single thing that you, as a parent, can request that will drastically change an IEP. I really wish there was a magic answer, but all I have for you is sympathy. Your situation sucks. This whole situation—our most vulnerable students, who already struggle, are sinking deeper—sucks. You’re right to be overwhelmed. You’re allowed not to want to home-school your kids. I think it’s admirable that you have enough perspective to say that their mental well-being is more important than their academic progress. A lot of parents (and frankly, educators) I talk to do not have the wisdom to see it that way. Many days, I don’t have that wisdom. It’s amazing that you do.

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Here is the little bit of help I can offer. To me, an academic contract probably means a behavior contract, where the target behavior is work completion. I like to think of these as analogous to the contract you sign at your job: It lays out the expected outputs and parameters for the student, and then the reinforcements given if those parameters are met. At your job, it might be “work these hours, fulfill these responsibilities, and we will pay you this wage/salary.” For a student, it might be “complete X Y Z work within this time frame, and you will receive X” where X is classroom dollars, stickers, points, etc. Generally, the idea is to up the level of reinforcement for an already achievable skill so that the student is motivated to maintain that skill. In your son’s case, if he’s mainstreamed, it presumably means he has all the classroom behavior and academic skills to be successful in a public school classroom, so having this contract may help him to feel reinforced for using those skills. For what it’s worth, I do generally find that these behavior contracts help students.

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I know you said you’ve talked to their teachers, but I would suggest you do so again. Talk to them (by phone or by Zoom, not by email) openly and frankly about how your kids are doing and what their experience was prior to this. You’ve just moved school districts, which means these teachers don’t know your kids, or even any of their former teachers. They may not be aware of your daughter’s PTSD, or the fact that this is your son’s first time in public school. Sometimes, just making that connection to a teacher can help them put pieces together in terms of how they are responding to the needs of a student or of a family, and that may help them help you find workable solutions for this year. As I said, I do think you are 100 percent right to say that your focus is on the emotional well-being of your kids—just make sure the teachers are aware of these priorities as well.

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—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

Our son is an older child in his kindergarten cohort (he turned 6 in October). He is learning to read; he knows most of his alphabet in upper and lower case letters along with their sounds. Sometimes he forgets sounds, and sometimes he writes them backward or upside down. This concerns my husband because he has seen other children our son’s age outperform our son. However, I don’t wish to compare my son to others. We switch off days helping him with virtual school. I do not correct his assignments when we show them to his teacher because I want her to see his (growing) progress. My husband does correct him, but I don’t tell my husband not to (and vice versa), since we are adamant about maintaining our shared responsibilities for our son’s school and our work days.

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My husband and I learned to read at earlier ages than our son, but I view it as more important that we provide our son with nutritious meals, outside playtime, and enough sleep during this pandemic. We have addressed his literacy with his teacher and his school’s learning specialist, and both have said that during their small group and 1-1 times that he is performing fine for his age (not a child prodigy, but who cares?!) and is—best of all—enthusiastic about participating and listening during virtual school. I notice that even though our son does not read more than a few words right now, he constantly asks us to read to him, enjoys family story time, looks forward to picking up library books, and is happy to choose books from his own shelf to “read” to our cats, his grandparents, and himself. To me, that is a sign he’ll be a voracious reader when he is older, and it doesn’t matter that it hasn’t happened yet.

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Is my husband right that we could/should be expecting more from him, or am I focusing in the right direction by making sure that my son is happy, healthy, and enjoying school and books during this pandemic? For what it’s worth, my parents went as far as not permitting me to check out books by my favorite author as a child and needed to approve my library books before we could go home. I believe this contributed to my dislike of school and it wasn’t until I moved outside of their home that I did begin reading for pleasure.

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—Laissez-Faire Lire?

Hey There LFL,

Thank you for this question and the context you’ve offered. First, I want to say that your son’s reading and writing habits sound completely normal for a student of his age (in fact, they’re just fine until about the second grade).

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Based on everything you’ve told me, it seems like you’re building a wonderful foundation for your son to develop as a reader. He sounds incredibly excited about reading, and the last thing you want to do is potentially jeopardize that at such an early age. While I understand where your husband’s concern is coming from—many parents are terrified of the learning their kid may be losing during this pandemic, which is fair—I would avoid setting any firm expectations this year. The key thing to remember is that all children grow and develop at a different pace. If you continue to focus on building strong habits and excitement around reading, the fluency will come later. It’s also very encouraging that he participates and performs well in small groups.

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I understand the desire to let each other parent in your own way during your days of managing his schoolwork, but I think it would be wise to develop a more consistent approach. When a child receives conflicting feedback from you both, it can send mixed messages to your son, and this may cause confusion or frustration as your son continues on his reading journey. Coming together as a family to find the most holistic and consistent way to support your child will create the best learning environment for him to grow.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

Our son is in sixth grade. Academically he’s very bright, and if he’s interested in a topic, he has no trouble focusing and doing very well. He’s in a very part-time extension program, and when he’s in this program, teachers report no behavior problems, but when he’s in “regular” school, we receive regular reports of him acting out and being disruptive. It’s driving the teachers crazy, and we have had long discussions with him about the need to behave and just do the work in the regular classes, but this has mixed results. (We also use a carrot/stick approach to motivate him.)

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As we head toward high school, we’re wondering about models of education that would better suit him. We’ve been advised by teachers who know and love him (despite his antics) to avoid “mainstream” schools and to look for an option outside the box. Do you have any general advice about educational models that allow kids more autonomy in directing their learning? We want to give him the best chance to do well, but operating within the regular structure is looking like it won’t cut it.

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—Looking Outside the Box

Dear LOtB,

I have more questions than answers for you, but I’m asking them with the hope that some of my questions can help you move forward in a more informed way.

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First, you told me what you think about your son’s school experience, and you said you’ve talked to him about the need to behave, but what does he say about his experience? He’s old enough that his opinion matters—a lot. It’s time for an honest discussion with him—and not one where you tell him he needs to behave more, instead, one in which you ask him if he has any insight into why he struggles with behavior. What does he hope to get from disrupting? Is he trying to avoid work? Does he want attention from his teacher or peers?

Second, at what times or during what subjects is he most disruptive? Do his “antics” show up only in whole-group lessons or in small-group sessions as well? What about during one-on-one instruction?

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You don’t mention learning disabilities. It’s possible to be both “very bright” and disabled. Have his teachers ever suggested, or have you thought about, testing? Perhaps he needs accommodations.

Regarding the extension program, it may have less to do with the nature of it than with the length. Is he particularly interested in what they do in the program? Or is it just that it’s something different from regular school, and short?

Now, on to options. These are going to depend on your values, your finances, and your location.

The educational model that allows the most autonomy is, of course, unschooling, a form of home schooling that assumes children’s natural curiosity will lead them to learn and capitalizes on their interests. Parents operate as facilitators.

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If that’s not something you’re interested in doing, or you cannot afford to do, your school district might have specialty high schools, such as STEM, medical, or the arts. Is there one near you with a focus that your son might be interested in? Note that these high schools tend to operate under the same requirements as unspecialized schools—e.g., he can’t skip English, math, PE, etc.—so he’d still have to take some classes that he’s not interested in.

Depending on your values, you might also look at charter schools. Some charter schools focus on a specialty like the above, but often the difference is in pedagogical methods. For example, the curriculum would be standard, but they might rely on project-based learning, place-based learning, or Socratic seminars to implement it. Are there methods your son responds to more than others?

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Again, depending on your values—and your finances—private school is an option. Private schools generally have smaller class sizes. Maybe your son would benefit from fewer people to distract or get distracted by.

Good luck! I hope you find a great fit for your son.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

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My partner is a middle school teacher known for establishing a rapport with “difficult” students and advocating for BIPOC and LGBTQ kids. When he answered a call from a parent one evening, I overheard him talking about his sister, but…he does not have a sister! I confronted him, and he said he sometimes lies to students and parents to offer them support and empathy. I find this totally baffling. What should I do?

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