How can I learn more about my son’s/daughter’s friends?

R. feels a painful emotional distance from his daughter, despite his desire to know more about her everyday life. R. feels sad and angry because he is “shut out of her life.”  According to R., his daughter seems reluctant to share many details about her thoughts, feelings, and choices.  R. is concerned that his daughter, who is in high school and does not live with him, has friends he does not know (and afraid the friends have values he does not share).

In therapy, R. and I address this experience of distance from his daughter in several ways: he is exploring how his decades-long pattern of being minimally involved as a parent have shaped his current situation; he is curious about why he seems to feel left-out and alone everywhere he goes (home, work, church); he is considering whether his teenage daughter is deliberately trying to create more space from her parents and forge closer bonds with friends; he is wondering if he could really “handle it” if his daughter took him up on his invitation and started asking him for more closeness.

In addition to the above, I also had a specific suggestion for R.: ask fewer direct questions about your daughter’s friends.

R.’s approach is to ask his daughter a barrage of direct questions about each friend: Who was that on the phone? Is Sarah in any of your classes? Does she have a boyfriend? Has Sarah had sex? What do her parents do? Does she have any tattoos?

Although this questioning style comes naturally to R., the truth is that this approach simply hasn’t worked: the more questions he asks, the less his daughter talks.

Instead, I suggest a more general question for R. to ask his daughter:

“Who is popular in your school?  What makes someone popular?”

Asked with genuine curiosity, these questions have an amazing potential for dialogue with a child or teenager.  Like the rest of us, R.’s daughter likely has opinions about what qualities are valued and valuable in her social setting.  R. may hear what his daughter notices (or fails to see) in peer relationships.  R. may learn how his daughter explains and understands her social world, how she imagines other people see her, and her emotional response to having that place in the world.

R.’s willingness to listen may help him learn more about his daughter’s friends and about her sense of social identity.  There is a potential for discovery and adventure here as well: if R. can listen to his daughter with curiosity and acceptance, he may find the emotional closeness he has been seeking.