Your teen may struggle socially or desperately want to feel like a part of a group. This at times can lead to “manufacturing” relationships by seeking out and creating intense emotional connections quickly (that also fizzle and lead to rejection or disappointment quickly.)
These teens are the ones who have eight “best friends” or call every new connection they meet on Instagram their friend. They may have poor boundaries in terms of sharing too much personal information at first meeting, or give out their phone number to someone who shows them a small bit of attention on SnapChat.
Why does your teen tend to go to extremes in relationships? From a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) perspective, the following three barriers may contribute to unhealthy relationships. Read on to learn about each area, as well as gain some practical solutions to help your teen move forward with interpersonal effectiveness.
Barrier #1: Lack of Skill
Your teen may not know how to effectively find friends or join a group. If this is the case, there are 4 steps to skill-building to find new friends.
Look for friends who are already around you. To find people who you may connect with, it’s important to make sure that you are frequently around others and visible to them. Placing yourself in “containers” where the same people show up routinely allows you to become a part of the same routine as them and thereby creates many opportunities to engage with them.
Look for friends who are similar to you. Like attracts like. We often make friends with people who share our interests and hobbies. People are attracted to other people with similar values, interests and attitudes. Just be sure you’re being genuine and not faking interests to get others to like you.
Work on your conversation skills. Ask questions. Show an interest in others. Stay up-to-date on pop culture and current events so you have topics to talk about with others. When you share information about yourself, be sure that it closely matches the intensity or privacy of what the other person is sharing.
Compliment Others (Selectively). When you meet someone new, smile, make eye contact, compliment them on something specific then ask them a question. Example, “I like your scarf! Where did you get it?” This makes someone feel good then opens a conversation.
Barrier #2: Emotion Mind is in Control
In DBT, there are three states of mind. Emotion Mind is ruled by your feelings and occurs when your behavior is guided by your mood. Reasonable Mind is a logical state that includes making lists, looking at evidence and being pragmatic. Wise Mind is the synthesis of these two states. When someone is in Wise Mind, this is when they can experience emotions and also make effective decisions in life.
When your teen is ruled by Emotion Mind, they are guided by wanting to feel loved, connected and validated so deeply that they are not considering the rational implications of moving too quickly in relationships. They are not considering consequences that could potentially be heartbreaking (or dangerous.)
The DBT Mindfulness Skills of Observe and Describe can be helpful here. Encourage your teen to avoid labels like “best friend” for multiple people in their life and instead ask them to describe the nature of their relationship with this person. This may mean saying, “I talk to them everyday.” or “I feel really happy when I’m around them.” Helping your teen learn to Observe and Describe prepares them to discuss relationships in a way that is reality based and that is not a recipe for disappointment. When someone uses the term “best friend” for an acquaintance that they met through social media, the impact of rejection when this relationship dissipates tends to be a lot worse.
Barrier #3: Your Teen wants EVERYTHING Fast, Intense and Extreme
When your teen has a hard time seeing the gray in life and everything is in black and white, they can become hyperfocused on relationships that become too intense too quickly. Helping your teen set clear boundaries that are based in both family and teen values can be effective.
Collaborate with your teen to decide how much time is actually effective to spend on friends, social media and relationships. Listen to your teen to understand their short and long term goals and ask them how they can use their time wisely to reach these goals. When you can listen to and validate your teen’s wants and needs, it will be easier to develop a routine together that sticks.
It’s also important to help your teen learn to set boundaries with friends. Rehearse with your teen what they can say and do when someone is asking for nude photos or someone who keeps texting when they are trying to do homework. Reinforcing that saying no is appropriate and doesn’t make your teen “mean” is important in helping them set clear and healthy boundaries in relationships.
DBT helps teens act skillfully to get what they want and need from others in a way that is healthy and effective. It’s important to help your teen clarify their priorities in the relationships in their lives. Helping them learn to successfully assert themselves, act in a way that creates positive relationships and maintains self-respect are skills that build on the foundation of these priorities and values.