Dear Patti,

I’m worried about Ella, my 10-year-old daughter. She’s very smart and talented but seems to lack social confidence, especially around other girls her own age. I initially ignored it because she’s an only child and I’m a single parent. We’re extremely close and my parents caution me against becoming an interfering, controlling mother or getting in the way of Ella figuring things out for herself.

Ella has four girlfriends she spends most of her free time with after school and on weekends at our house. I’ve seen their interactions and overhear their conversations and it’s clear Ella is almost always a compliant follower of whatever they want to do. If she has a point of view any of them disagree with, she’ll quickly change her mind to agree with them. I recently arranged for my mom and dad to come and stay with us and observe her behavior firsthand. We all spent the day with a colleague of mine whose daughter is of similar age. By the end of the day, Ella 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’ve wanted to blame her four original playmates, but my parents think it’s beginning to be a pattern. Ella’s teacher agrees this could be a problem as well. She has given me the name of a counselor who works well with preteens and teens. I don’t want to over-analyze this, but I’ll take my daughter to see a counselor. Is there anything more I can do to help her?

  — Sharon

Dear Sharon,

I agree that it’s not in Ella’s best interest for her 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 Ella 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 competence in her relationships, including those she has with people her own age.

Raise Ella’s self-esteem by praising her for good behavior and ideas. Allow her to experience more interactions with you by frequently engaging in conversations with her and listening to her ideas on various subjects. Solicit her opinions in family discussions and demonstrate that you value her input. Have her teach you something. Give her responsibilities; i.e., more duties or chores, caring for a pet or being responsible for part of the planning and preparation of family meals. Encourage her to give more input considering 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 Ella while 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 and possibly cause performance anxiety which could contribute to self-blame or self-criticism. Be encouraging rather than overprotective and take care not to treat her as younger than her age. Take care too, not to overvalue compliance, as that will send conflicting messages about her asserting herself.

If Ella, on her own initiative, mentions that she sometimes feels picked on by her friends, take care not to lecture or try to “fix” her. Just listen. When she’s finished venting, you can then let her know she can learn social skills and might want to practice initially on less intimidating relationships than the close girlfriends who mean so much to her.

Lastly, teach Ella to be a leader by speaking up for what she believes in. Teach her to dream and to know she can eventually make many of her dreams come true if she believes in herself.


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 website, patticarmalt-vener.com.