My 21-year-old daughter doesn’t seem to have any friends. Would therapy help?

Tell Me About It: She is functioning and competent but appears to have no social life

PROBLEM: My daughter is 21. She is the youngest of five siblings, all of whom are either working, or in college, and have active social lives. She is in her third year in college and seems to neither like nor dislike the course, but my concern is that – in all the time she has been in college – she has never once had a night out or met up with friends.

She says she meets up with people during the day, but that seems to be the extent of her socialising. I have encouraged her to arrange a night out, but she seems nervous that no one will turn up and I have given up suggesting it, so it stops being obvious that I am concerned.

She spends her time at home, on her phone.

She had a difficult time in school. No one seemed to dislike her, but she was always excluded from any social event that went on, and I can say that she left school without a single friend. If she meets one of her school friends now, they are friendly, but she will never hear from them again.

Whenever we socialise with family, she is great fun, and if she goes out at all, it is with her siblings and their friends who all seem to like her. I think this is sad for a young girl who should be having the most fun and carefree time of her life. She is not depressed nor overly anxious. She has a job and recently has been given a more responsible role, which she has no problem with.

For her 21st birthday we went away to see family, as there didn’t seem to be anyone she could invite to a party. We had great fun and she was made a fuss of, but that was it. She has not received any 21st invitations as far as I know.

Would therapy help? I don’t want to label her or make her feel any more different than she must feel already.

ADVICE: Psychotherapy would help as your daughter has had many years to establish a pattern where she believes she cannot make friends, and this is not something which is ideal to carry forward in her life. She is not alone.

There are many young people who struggle to make friendships in school and this pattern continues into later life, not because of any underlying problem but because of learned behaviour and self-protection. You describe your daughter as a competent, functioning person and as such, she has the capacity to face this block in her life but, as with most things, she may need a push to begin the process. Perhaps as the youngest of five, she was able to source most of her social needs at home and the early experiences of risking vulnerability in friendships passed her by.

Most of us go through the experience of friendships ending and we learn to survive this and to pick ourselves up and try again – not hugely unlike romantic relationships. However, we expect our adult friendships to persist over time, so these friendships need all the attention and care that we bestow on our amorous engagements. In childhood, we generally make friends simply by being around people for long periods of time, but in later life, we need to consciously choose and follow up on possible friendships by choosing to spend time with that person and making efforts to support them through their dilemmas plus opening ourselves up to them with our own fears and insecurities. What often happens is that we end up with acquaintances rather than friends, as we hold back due to fear of rejection or fear of repeating our past experiences.

Your daughter seems to have acquaintances in college, and it is up to her to move these to something closer and deeper – this means challenging her patterns and facing her fears of people not turning up for her. It is a good life lesson to know that most personal development (and achieving our aims) involves becoming aware of our thinking and behaviour patters and facing our blocks and fears.

I include you in this: you may not want to cause your daughter hurt or upset by bringing up your concern for her lack of friends, but this is exactly what you want her to do, ie face her fears and tackle the issues that are holding her back. If you do this, you will have some idea of what she is facing. You may well face push back from her but your love for her will allow you to return to this topic again as you know that her life would be better and richer with friends.

Some suggestions for support for her include the college’s student counselling service which are free and confidential; there may be a student peer-support service on offer, and this would help her trial meeting a fellow student and practice talking about real and difficult things. She might also join a college society, especially one that involves volunteering to support others as she might find that the training with fellow students automatically helps her connect with them as does the shared experience of helping others. Such experiences are often the beginnings of friendship.