Few people see the abilities, passions, and bright spots of a teenage girl as clearly as her parents.
If only everyone else could appreciate them as you do!
You’ve watched her grow up and you know all the charming origins of her quirks.
Maybe she’s an introvert and always liked a good amount of time to play by herself as a kid. She could be sensitive to overwhelming situations and has never seemed to enjoy the sensory-overload experiences other kids loved so much.
Maybe other people see your teenage daughter as shy or reserved. They might not realize she has a vibrant personality waiting for those who take the time to find it.
When you know how amazing she is, it can be torture to watch her get less in return from her friends.
Your daughter might have shared with you that she wants more meaningful friendships. Or you might just be noticing that she seems lonely or seems undervalued by the friends she has.
If your concern comes from your observation, it is helpful to consider whether any of it comes from your expectations about teenage life. These expectations can creep in silently through messages in the media, stories about what other kids have experienced in high school or even through some of the experiences you had in school.
In considering your expectations and welcoming the reality that your daughter might have a high school experience that is different, you can better support her in her process of figuring this out.
As her biggest supporters, you empathize with her in the super-challenging process of meeting people and getting close.
When she’s being goofy with her favorite aunt or spending time with an old friend that has earned her trust, your daughter probably comes alive. In these safe relationships where she feels certain she won’t be rejected, she feels comfortable with who she is.
But those special, safe relationships are few and far between. In the majority of interactions with peers, a teen who is introverted or highly sensitive to sensory and emotional experiences has to deal with a lot of misinterpretation.
When she doesn’t know what to say or do in a social situation, she might look like she’s freezing up. Peers around her sometimes perceive this as “cold” or decide she doesn’t have a sense of humor, which makes them pull away.
Then, the next time your daughter feels worried about what to say or do, she has the additional memory of being rejected in a similar situation. This can add a layer of self-doubt to the equation. Others around her may assume she wants to be on her own. On the contrary, she likely craves connection just like the rest of us – it’s a fundamental human need!
Why is it that her best qualities are so undervalued in the world of high school?
Like all places where people gather en masse, high school is a culture of conformity. It’s also a culture with rigid rules about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. This is partially because it’s made up of people in the stage of development where nobody is exactly sure who they are yet. Furthermore, everybody has heightened sensitivity to how they are perceived by others.
Quite often, teenage girls who don’t “fit in” to the guidelines for popularity in high school are actually in this situation BECAUSE of their great qualities.
Your daughter might be incredibly focused on her creativity, her sport, or her hobby. She might have sharp wit, great observation skills, or think completely outside the box. She might have a personal style that is unique. Or she might be completely uninterested in playing the game of popularity.
Any way that she is different from the dominant picture of how teenage girls are “supposed to be” is really a STRENGTH that makes her who she is. At the same time, other people’s criticism or rejection can sting. That sting can become internalized in the form of self-doubt and self-criticism.
The best way your daughter can start building more quality relationships in her life is to invest in her relationship with herself.
Your daughter will be more comfortable in the world once she starts putting time and emotional energy into developing an understanding of who she is. Therapy is a wonderful place to do this work. Your daughter may also be doing some of it on her own through journaling, art, or other creative avenues.
Self-exploration will give her clarity about her values, what she enjoys or she does not enjoy, how she tackles problems, her communication style, and her personal goals.
As her identity comes into focus, your daughter will be able to make conscious choices about what she wants in her life. As well as what doesn’t fit for her. The people who are truly compatible with her will be drawn to her naturally. She will be more comfortable keeping her distance from those who are not compatible with her. And she will be able to identify that self-doubt when it creeps up and choose not to let it intervene in her day.
You can help her along by supporting her self-exploration.
Self-discovery is a difficult but rewarding project.
The most important thing you can do as a parent is to witness her as she figures out who she is and be ready to embrace and validate her discoveries.
Make sure she has the space to do the work. And be on the small team of unconditional supporters that helps her stand strong during this important time in her life.
**Written by Lily Tsutsumida, M.A., MFT, ATR, therapist on staff at One Heart Counseling Center**