Friday, September 08, 2006

Dismaying Story #49: Forsaking All Others

Dear Andrew,

My almost-14 year old son is very mature for his age and has grown up a lot in the past year. He came home from the first day of school feeling very discouraged because a boy he’s been good friends with for about a year and a half (I’ll call him Robert) is in all his classes. This may sound like a dream come true for some kids, but here’s the problem: my son’s interests and tastes have changed and he wants to pursue new friendships but he’s a very kind-hearted boy and seriously non-assertive. He’s well liked, though, because he’s funny and easy to be with and there are several acquaintances that could develop into friendships outside school if he was more “available.”

Unfortunately Robert has no other friends and has become very needy, wanting to do everything with my son, is not interested in developing other friendships and gives my son a hard time when he spends time with other friends who go to a different school.

My son knows himself well, i.e. that having Robert around means he’ll fall back into a default position because it’s easier and because he dreads hurting his friend’s feelings. As a highly sensitive kid, he knows how terrible social rejection can be. Being proactive does not come naturally to him so he also knows that being in a position that forces him to seek out new companions is the only way it’s going to happen.

I understand his angst because I, too, have some social anxiety and found myself retreating to an easier position far too often, too, when I was his age, but I also know that the result is unsatisfying relationships and I don’t want this to happen to him. Have you got any tips/suggestions that he could try to get himself out of this social rut?

Signed, Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned,

Robert's demand that your son ignore other friends is selfish and inappropriate. Your son (I'll call him Tom) should cultivate other normal friendships to develop his social skills. Tom needs to learn how to deal with a variety of personalities and this will also likely provide more opportunities for fun. If he allows himself to be dominated by Robert, he runs the risk of being labeled and shunned by other kids.

This is clearly a case of Robert putting peer pressure on your son to do something inappropriate that he would normally not choose for himself. Tom must find a way to resist this pressure and do what is in his own best interest.

That said, it is good that your son would prefer not to trample Robert's feelings. Tom may consider just hanging with Robert in part because that is the easy road, but it is also a sign of maturity. Tom is aware of the needs of another and is considering whether he should make a sacrifice to help a friend.

While it is good to be giving and supportive, sacrificing your son's social life on an ongoing basis is simply too much to ask, especially to support a social weakness that is not good for his friend either. Robert also needs to broaden his social horizons, to develop more confidence and skills. It would be one thing for Tom to ignore other people for a brief time while a friend is particularly needy (for example, making sure Robert is not alone at a school dance) but it is quite another matter for your son to give up his entire social life.

Your son doesn't want to hurt his friend's feelings, but does he realize Robert is (unwittingly) hurting him in a very real way?

Tom doesn't need to reject Robert, but he should reject his friend's possessiveness. Tom can continue to spend time with Robert and to let him know he is glad to be his friend, but he should also spend time with others. If Robert gives him a hard time, Tom must find the courage to stand up to him, to refuse to be bullied into a situation that is harmful to himself. If Robert comes to accept this, then all is well. Otherwise, your son must realize he has done all he can for his friend and should walk away.

All the best,

This question provides a nice change of pace. Recent Dismaying Stories have dealt almost exclusively with significant others. Those relationships are, of course, endlessly fascinating and I'm sure will continue to be our most frequent topic (so keep sending in those S.O. questions). It's also interesting, though, to talk about how we deal with all those other folks in our lives. So send me an email and ask about the challenges you have with parents, children, siblings, cousins, in-laws, neighbors, co-workers, friends, your doctor, your butcher, your baker or your candlestick maker ... you name it. Let's spice this site up and get working on a variety of relationships!


  1. While I agree with your advice, I think that Mom here was looking for something a little more specific. Are there any actions/phrases you could think of to arm Tom with when Robert starts to confront him. Things like "Rob, I really respect you and I want to be your friend but I want to be S0&SO's friend too," or "Gee Rob I'm sorry you feel like I'm deserting you. I wasn't trying to hurt your feelings. SoNSo and I have some things in common and I enjoy his company. It doesn't mean I like you any less though." I think that if Tom was armed with something to say in advance and practiced some role-playing with Mom so that when Robert confronts him (which is inevitable) Tom won't feel on the spot and will have a comeback and his confidence ready.

    Also, I think Mom was asking for some proactive things Tom can do to start distancing himself (e.g. start making outside of school plans that include other boys and Robert so that Robert is forced to broaden his social circle, join up in certain school activities or sports to which Robert is not a member so he can have some non-Robert time to form friendships)

    Again, you're on the right track Dr. Andrew but you didn't give Mom any answers that she didn't already have.. what she needs her in some concrete help in coming up with the right words/actions to help her son along.

    My 2 cents.

  2. Oh, man--that sounds so familiar. That could be my brother at that age; he was one of those sensitive, protective, gentle, kids with a contingent of dysfunctional friends.

    I'm going to go out on a limb here and ask if Tom has any interests that might be supported by extracurricular organizations, where he could practice making new friends without having to worry about schoolyard politics. My brother was a Boy Scout and belonged to the International Plastic Modeler's Society, and later a Civil War reenactment group, which were slightly odd hobbies but allowed him to have friends that he didn't have to be around eight hours a day, five days a week. Once he had learned more about interacting with people, it was easier for him to [gently] set limits on his other friends.

  3. Julie: I like your role playing idea (if you can get a 14-year-old boy to go along with it) and having some pre-rehearsed lines might indeed help.

    Sounds like "Tom" already has broadened his interests and has opportunities to make new friends. Having contacts outside of school would certainly be good for him, but he still must deal with the same old problem of having Robert attached to his side for the entire school day, in every class.

    Tom should be honest and straightforward: "I'm glad you're my friend but I have other friends too."

    I still believe the key is for Tom to have the courage to stand up for himself. The specific words he uses are less important than his refusal to give in to Robert's unreasonable pressure.

  4. I had this same situation happen to me when I was fourteen. I had a good friend who became very possessive when I was with other friends. I felt just like "Tom" and didn't want to hurt her feelings, but I wasn't about to let her keep me from other friendships. So, yes, some of the things I had to say to her were along the lines mentioned above. I had to remind her quite often that I had other friends and that I would love to spend time with her at such and such a time, but today I had plans to do this. It did always make her angry, but not in an abusive sense. If that were to happen, I think a whole new set of boundaries would have to be set.

    To this day, we are very close friends. (That was over thirty years ago.) We've been through a lot together and with maturity, she came to learn to have her own interests and seek out other friendships. And I learned to handle this sort of possessiveness, because that wasn't the last time I confronted it! I've known plenty of grown women who have gotten jealous about other friendships almost like jealous lovers. I've had to learn some serious communication and coping tools to combat that tendency.

    Because "Tom" is sensitive and kind and probably fun to be with, too, he will likely have other people in his life who will want to have him all to themselves.

  5. Here is some feedback I received from the letter writer via email:

    Thanks, Andrew. It's great to see the problem from a more objective perspective. Addressing one's own children’s problems, especially if that child is like you, is often as subjective as dealing with one's own problems. I love this phrase from the responses as it's right on the money: "he was one of those sensitive, protective, gentle, kids with a contingent of dysfunctional friends."

    I realize, from your answer and the feedback, that the key issue here is what you said: teaching assertiveness. He's one of those kids who's an ace student, a decent athlete, has a lot of interests, is good looking and socially aware, yet completely lacks self-confidence. His friends have always been the ones that came to him and he rarely takes the initiative socially.

    I guess the biggest problem is getting a 14 year old boy to listen to his 'mommy', so I doubt the role-playing would be a hit (though it would work like a charm with his younger brother). If I explain to him what you said, that Robert is actually hurting him by holding him back, I think that'll help a lot. When he came to me with the problem I said that he shouldn't make Robert's social problems his, but I don't think that was strong enough to get him to really sit up and take notice.

    I will keep an eye on the responses. Thanks for this – your blog is a super idea and the format works really well.

  6. I had a friend like this. As soon as she didn't need me though and found new friends she dumped me like a hot potato,lol. Worse still? I let her do this over and over and over until finally in my early adulthood I told her to stuff it!
    She started out as the needy controlling Robert type and ended up making my life hell,ugh.
    I loved your response to this problem. Where were you 25 years ago??lol
    Awww well,if I didn't experience I would be as smart as I am,so it's all good;p

  7. Back again Andrew. and you're welcome for my visit. - I wouldn't be back if I hadn't found it interesting... and I love the title so apropos. It should have been one of our vows.(married 17 years) Excellent advice, again. I was surprised to read about this dilemma with a boy - this is such a common thing for high school girls - as long ago as that was, I remember... I think I am likely to become a frequent visitor to your blog - I have so many relationships to explore --really, I just find so many others annoying!

  8. Andrew,
    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I appriciate your comments.
    BTW, I've been enjoying looking at your blog, this is a great idea. I bet it helps a lot of people.

  9. I think it is a part of life to ask for what you need in any relationship and the sooner he understands it the better. I was the younger kid that followed the other kids like a puppy dog and was hurt when I was told that I was immature etc...however, later in life i have had to dump my share of toxic friends. He can ease his friend into it slowly, or make a clean break and hope for the best.

    You think that this ends in jr doesn' friends had the same kind of jealous insecure response when we had a playdate with someone It all comes down to being insecure. If i am confident that I am a good friend I have no worries when a friend has other friends. However at 14 you really can chang personas..and groups...