Follow the leader

Follow the leader

Teens and pre-teens need to be shown their concerns and opinions matter

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 01/10/2013

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Dear Patti, 
Our 11-year-old daughter, Sammi, seems to lack social confidence, especially around kids her own age. My husband and I ignored it at first, because we don’t want to be interfering parents or get in the way of Sammi figuring things out for herself.
She has three girl pals she spends the most time with after school and on weekends at our house. We’ve seen their interactions and overheard their conversations, and it’s clear Sammi is almost always a compliant follower of whatever they want to do. If she has a point of view that any of them disagree with, she’ll quickly change her mind to agree with whatever they say. I recently arranged for Sammi and me to spend the day with a colleague of mine whose daughter is of similar age. By the end of the day, Sammi was reacting just as she does with her friends — following, agreeing and trying to please the other girl by doing whatever she thought was necessary to gain acceptance.  
 
I wanted to blame the three original playmates, but I think it’s beginning to be a pattern. Sammi’s teacher agrees this could be a problem and has given me the name of a counselor who she believes works well with pre-teens and teens. I don’t want to over-analyze this, but I will take my daughter to see a counselor if that’s what she needs. 
 
Sammi is a very smart and talented girl. Is there anything my husband and I can do to help her?
 — Liv

Dear Liv,
I agree that it’s not in Sammi’s best interests to habitually put herself and her own needs second to the needs and interests of others. Getting along with peers on an equal level, speaking up for oneself and taking initiative when needed are important and necessary social skills. Among the common characteristics of “followers” are poor self-esteem, shyness, lack of verbal skills, avoidance of voicing personal opinions, indecisiveness, difficulty being alone and codependency on others.
 
Fortunately, it’s very possible Sammi can overcome these behaviors and acquire the critical abilities that help promote high social functioning. This, in turn, will enable her to develop a sense of confidence and competency in her relationships, including those she has with people her own age. Raise your daughter’s self-esteem by praising her for good behavior and ideas. 
 
Allow her to experience more interactions with you by engaging in conversations with her often and listening to her ideas on various subjects. Solicit her opinions in family discussions and demonstrate that you value her input. Have Sammi teach you something. Give her responsibilities — more duties or chores, the care of a pet or being responsible for part of the planning and preparation of family meals. Encourage her to give more input concerning her spare time and daily matters. The more she becomes accustomed to speaking up and relying on herself, the more she’ll realize it’s abnormal to be subservient.  
 
You’re correct in being careful not to over-control or over-correct your daughter as she learns the social lessons that preadolescence puts before her. Obviously, you can’t expect her to have the same level of social savvy you’ve acquired over the years, much less for these traits to blossom overnight. If you constantly criticize her or act worried or disappointed, it could put added pressure on her, possibly cause performance anxiety or contribute to self-blame or self-criticism. Be encouraging rather than overprotective and take care not to treat Sammi as younger than her age. Take care, too, not to overvalue compliance, as that will send conflicting messages about her asserting herself. 
 
If Sammi on her own brings up that she sometimes feels picked on by her friends, take care not to lecture or try to “fix” her. Let her know she can learn social skills and that she might want to practice initially on less intimidating relationships than the close girlfriends who mean so much to her. Lastly, teach Sammi to be a leader by speaking up for what she believes in. Teach her to dream and to know that if she believes in herself, she can eventually make many of her dreams come true. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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