Why Making Friends Can Be So Hard

Young people become more attractive friends when they stop pretending.

Posted Jul 06, 2019

“My friends are my life! They mean everything to me! I only go to school to see my friends! Without them, I’ve got nothing!”

As parents and carers, it hurts to hear this stuff. It feels like not mattering any more, like not being good enough. Anxiously, we watch as our children hurry out of the house (“Be back by when I said!”), half-wishing that they’d stay indoors forever and never go out. Then we see them outside on the pavement, reaching for their phones, smiling or frowning at whatever’s on the screen, and we worry because we know that having friends is full of delights but also fraught with dangers.

“He’s always out with somebody! And when he’s at home, he’s always in his room. He barely speaks to us any more. It’s like he can’t wait to go out and be with his friends….”

It hurts but isn’t meant to. It’s meant to say, “I’m not your child any more. I don’t need you like I used to. I’m older now. I’ve got my own life….”

Small children learn about the world through their parents and siblings. But as they get older, they need opportunities to practise life with a wider range of people beyond family members. As adolescents, separating from their parents and siblings, they look to practise closeness and aloneness, loyalty and betrayal, honesty and duplicity. They look for new sources of fun, intimacy, love, adventure. They need their friends because they need to keep practising, always practising: practising having a best friend, breaking up with a best friend, sharing friends, becoming enemies, being in a group, dealing with newcomers, being an insider, an outsider, in the gang and out of the gang. They can’t sleep for worrying in case they’ve upset someone. They spend hours figuring out how to extricate themselves from friendships, agonising about making new friends and despairing when they feel friendless, seemingly unable to make or keep friends.

Because friendships are so important developmentally, it’s heartbreaking when young people can’t make them. And the reasons are sometimes obvious. Some parents are overbearing and interfere constantly in their children’s lives. Some young people have been bullied and have had their confidence taken away from them. Some – through no fault of their own – struggle to empathise with their peers, unable to read the signals or understand the jokes, unable to collaborate or share.

These things are obvious, but as a therapist working with young people, time and again I’m struck by one particular characteristic. Many of those who struggle to make friends struggle to be authentic, as if they don’t trust that being themselves will ever be enough. They pretend to be more than they are, to be bigger, better, cleverer, cooler than they are, to be more confident than they feel. They maintain what Helene Deutsch calls an ‘as if’ personality, or what Winnicott calls a ‘false self’. It’s as if somewhere along the line they’ve developed a pretend-self to deal with life and haven’t yet had time to integrate it with the other, less anxious, less defended, more relaxed parts of themselves.

This pretend-self may have developed for good reasons. At the time, it may have seemed like the only way to survive a frightening or stressful situation. It may have been a behaviour imposed by other people. The problem is that now the ‘pretend’ young person doesn’t seem to fit together. And other young people sense this. It makes them uneasy, unsure how to interact with someone who may not be all that he seems. After all, we need our friends to be reliable and honest; we need to know where we stand with them, and inconsistent people make us uneasy. We don’t know if we can trust them because we don’t really know who they are.

In particular, ‘pretend’ young people struggling to make friends often seem to be struggling with anger: with their own and with other people’s. They act sad and passive when they’re clearly full of rage, or they act angry when they’re obviously sad and frightened. They shrink from the anger of their peers or they try desperately to control it.

With the young people who come to see me, complaining that they can’t seem to make friends, I begin with their anger: hearing all about it, valuing it, rehearsing it, incorporating it into the young person’s repertoire of who and how he’s allowed to be. I want to know about the real – not the pretend – anger because real anger, like real friendship, means that other people know where they stand.

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