Some Social Problems That Mainly Affect People When They're Younger
Here are a few interpersonal issues I've noticed mainly affect people in their high school and early college years. That's not to say they never happen to anyone who's older, but they're way more common in teenagers. They arise from a mix of everyone being relatively immature and having less social and life experience, and because the bubble-like school environment can push people's behavior in certain directions.
Being the tagalong / fifth wheel member of a group that doesn't even treat you well
For example, Matt's in the 10th grade and eats lunch with a group of friends. He half-knows one of them from middle school, which was how he started hanging around them. They're all mild jerks in the way teenage guys can be, and either ignore or make fun of him. They tolerate him following them around at lunch, but don't include him in their weekend plans, and don't even bother trying to hide that they leave him out. Matt knows it's not the ideal spot to be in, but he's shy and unconfident and will take what he can get. At least he's not spending lunches alone in the library.
Why does this happen? From the tagalong's perspective:
- When people are younger they may not have the common sense or self-respect to leave a group that's not a good fit for them. Their need to have some friends, any friends, overrides everything else. They may not have even consciously thought any of this through. They just have a deep, unthinking need to be a part of a group, no matter what.
- In high school everyone's more able to see what everyone else is doing. If someone spends their lunches alone people will notice, and probably give them a hard time for it. It's not like working in an office where no one cares if you eat at your desk or hop in your car and run errands. Most students don't want a reputation as someone with no friends at all. That creates pressure to be in a group, even if everyone in it is douchey.
- They may not know how to make other friends, so they feel they have to stick it out with what they've got. It may not even be on their radar that they could try to make other friends.
- Even if they wanted to find other friends, if they're in a smaller school they may not feel they have many other options.
- They don't have the social skills to stand up for themselves or raise their status in the group. Again, they may not even be aware that's a possibility.
- They may not have the social skills or self-insight to realize they're not wanted or that they barely have anything in common with the group they're tagging along with.
As people get older they tend to move on if their "friends" don't respect them. Everyone is also nicer in general. If a group doesn't click with one of its members, they're likelier to quietly wind down contact or politely put up with them, not make mean jokes.
What can you do if you realize you're the just-tolerated, tagalong friend?
- Realize that just because you don't fit with any one group doesn't necessarily mean you're flawed in some way, just that you're not a match for that particular collection of people.
- Know you can make other friends. You don't have to stick it out with a bunch of jerks who don't even like you.
- Know that if you're not sure how to make friends, you can learn.
- I realize you may not want to leave the group right away, because you think it's better to be a low-tier member of a clique than have no friends at all. In that case, stick with them for the time being, but make an effort to find their replacements.
Differences in eagerness to do "grown up" or "edgy" things driving a wedge between people
Johann was friends with four guys since grade school. For years they happily watched movies and played video games when they hung out. But now they're fifteen and growing apart. His friends suddenly want to skip classes, drink and smoke pot, go to parties, and try to hook up. He's just not ready to do any of that. The idea of it all vaguely scares him, and he doesn't want to break any rules and get in trouble. His buddies still meet up with him to play games every now and then, but he can tell he's an afterthought, and that they look down on him for being a goody goody. He won't be surprised if they stopped hanging out with him entirely before long.
When you're older pretty much everyone has experience with things like drinking and dating; they're just ho-hum parts of the adult world. Some people are still more edgy or risk taking than others, but everyone can usually spot those differences early on and sort themselves accordingly. You don't get the situation where everything with your friends is going fine, but then a rift appears because they feel ready to do "mature" things earlier than you.
Here's what you can do if you're in this situation:
- It hurts, but try to accept some friendships end because everyone grows in different directions. It can happen throughout your life, and doesn't mean you did anything wrong. Maybe you can even get back in touch in a few years, once you've caught up to them in life experience.
- Don't feel you have to do anything you're not comfortable with. If you don't want to get drunk at fifteen and your friends do, that's okay. When you're older and looking back it's not going to seem like that big deal that you, say, didn't feel like going to parties until you were seventeen rather than fourteen.
- At the same time, make sure you're not seeing some mildly edgy things as being worse than they are. You don't have to do anything you don't want to, but at least try to see everything accurately. For example, plenty of high schoolers skip the odd class without much happening to them. It doesn't ruin their lives. It doesn't mean they're scary criminals.
- Again, if you don't know how to find another, better-suited, group of friends for you, then learn.
Feeling your identity and self-esteem revolves around a single skill or gimmick you have
Teenagers can get stressed and down on themselves because they don't have a "thing". They aren't the kid who's good at drawing. They don't play a sport. They aren't in a band. They aren't the Golden Child who gets amazing grades. They aren't the rebel who always gets in trouble. They feel their value is lower because they didn't have a central gimmick.
As people get older they have more time to flesh out their personalities and interests. They may still have a big hobby or job that plays a role in their identity, but they don't think in the simplistic terms of "I'm nothing if I don't have a pastime or talent everyone knows me for."
If you're younger and feeling this way, try to realize your worthiness as a person doesn't hinge on having a single hook. Lots of people are worth hanging out with even though they haven't settled on one big hobby to put all their energy into.
Wanting to be friends with people or a group solely because of their reputation
In other words, wanting to be friends with the popular group just because they're popular. I know many teenagers aren't mindless slaves to popularity, but some get sucked in by it. They don't consider whether they actually have much in common with them or would enjoy their company, they just picked up the idea that being in the popular group is better and pursue it without thinking. That doesn't always work out, and then they have to deal with the pain of rejection.
As people get older they care less about popularity for its own sake. Also, after high school there are fewer bubbles where a bunch of people are forced together and everyone is more or less aware of each other's status. It can happen at colleges focused on fraternities and sororities, and in some bigger workplaces, but for the most part everyone is dispersed and living their own life.
There's nothing inherently wrong with looking to a certain group and wanting to be friends with them. Just ask yourself if you have any common ground, or if you'd even like being around them. If you try to befriend them and they're not interested, realize it doesn't automatically mean you're a loser or a failure. You just weren't a match for them. Also, realize just because a certain group of people happened to become popular in a particular environment, it doesn't mean they're gods. In another context they may be seen as nothing special.
In general, bigger variations between people in their social skills and physical development
An overarching problem with being younger is that people develop at different rates, and may get an advantage or be set back through no fault of their own. Physical differences are where this is most obvious. In Grade 10 some students already look like athletic twenty-year-olds, and may have an easier time with things like dating or earning respect. Others look like little kids until well into college, and may not have as many relationship options, and get a hard time for being slower to develop.
At any given age in high school there's also a wider range of social skills and experience. Of course, some thirty-year-olds are more socially savvy than others, but pretty much everyone has had time to catch up to each other on the basics. When you're younger you get a mix of people who are naturally outgoing and sociable, and who have had a fair amount of social practice for that point in their lives, and ones who are very inexperienced and awkward.
If you got unlucky in the physical development front you mostly have to accept it and wait. You can try to improve your looks in other ways, like by dressing well and staying in shape, but for the most part you have to play the hand you've been dealt. If you realize your social skills are iffy you can deliberately work to improve them.
A bunch of a school's "outcasts" forming their own group, and then getting on each other's nerves
It sounds good on paper: Take everyone who's awkward or doesn't fit in anywhere else, and have them be in their own group. Sometimes it works out okay, and all the so-called outcast students have a supportive, understanding place to call their own. At other times the social circle forms, but everyone grates on each other, and there's a sense that they're only hanging around together because they are no other options. This article goes into more detail about the dynamics behind that:
Why Socially Awkward People Don't Always Get Along With Each Other
As I've mentioned already, outside of high school there's way less pressure to be in a group, any group. If someone realizes most of their friends irritate them, they'll probably just move on. And even quote-unquote "outcast" adults have had more time to polish their people skills. They might still be more awkward than average, but not annoying in the way they might have been as a socially oblivious fourteen-year-old.
What to do if you're younger and have reluctantly resigned yourself to hanging around with the "outcasts"?
- Ask yourself if you dislike being in the group because they truly irritate you, or if it just hurts your ego to be associated with them. If they're actually nice people who you have a lot in common with, but they're just not high-status on paper, rethink your desire to leave. Looking back you'll probably be glad you stuck with them.
- Again, work on your general people skills and ability to make friends. You may feel your current group is your only option, but other ones may open up to you as you get more social experience.
Being at the mercy of inconvenient, impractical life circumstances
Such as living far from everyone else, having parents who won't let you have friends over, living in a small, dull town, or not having access to a car in an area where you need to drive to get anywhere. As an adult you have more control over these things, but when you're younger you have to make the best of what you have. This article goes into more detail about these problems:
When Your Life Circumstances Interfere With Your Social Life