Wanting Friendships with Teachers

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Reader’s Question

Ever since I was a child I haven’t had many friends, and when I was getting bullied that number went to zero. I had to make friends with my teachers and after a while that’s what I was used to — sitting with them at lunch, talking to them at recess — and when I moved to a new school and made friends I kept that habit just in case my friends decided to bail on me. Now, whenever a teacher doesn’t like me it keeps me up at night, obsessing over every little thing that I might’ve done wrong. When I have a favorite teacher I always want to be there to help and relieve any stress they might have. But whenever I do something wrong or feel like I’m annoying them it’s devastating; I feel like I’m letting down a god. So my question is:

Is it unhealthy to put my teacher on this high of a pedestal and to want to be friends with them — not just to be friendly? Should I distance myself?

Psychologist’s Reply

It is very natural to admire teachers, to want to please them, and even to wish for friendships with them. Teachers often have qualities we wish for in ourselves — kindness, friendliness, wisdom, compassion, warmth -– and it is easy to become enamored of them. Teachers also pay attention to us, especially when we answer a question correctly or show effort in our work. Sometimes we make more meaning out of the attention, however, mistakenly thinking that we have a special relationship with a teacher that no one else has. All these thoughts and feelings are natural; it’s how we manage them and what we do with them that makes the difference.

I can understand how teachers have been especially kind to you, and how you feel their support and friendship when peers have not been as accepting (and have, instead, bullied). Sometimes when we have difficulty relating to others our own age (or, they have difficulty relating to us), we find much more in common with our teachers. However, while it is important to have our teachers and other trusted adults as our safety nets (much like you described when moving to a new school), it’s also important to continue to learn new ways to approach and make friendships with others our own age. Some teachers can help with these skills, but often a trusted counselor at the school or perhaps a licensed therapist or psychologist outside of school can offer specific tools for helping friendships and peer relationships go more smoothly.

Sometimes when individuals are concerned about what authority figures (like teachers) think of them, they can become anxious or flustered around them, and may also place them on a pedestal as you described. This can sometimes be a symptom of Social Anxiety Disorder, or Social Phobia. A qualified mental health practitioner can help determine if this might be going on for you, and if so, can offer structured ways to help you see teachers and other authority figures in a more realistic way. Teachers’ roles are to help their students learn, and students’ roles are to listen to their teachers and try their best with the lessons provided. When we come to misconstrue the relationship as closer, we begin to cross boundaries that have an important purpose — to ensure that students learn.

You also mentioned always wanting to be there for your teachers to help them with their stress. This is an important boundary that would be helpful for you to work on. It is not any child’s job to help alleviate stress in adults — it is the job of other adults with whom they have age-appropriate friendships and relationships. If a teacher becomes annoyed, it may be because they notice this boundary being crossed. Listening to the teacher, asking for help on school related concerns (both the learning material as well as peer conflicts), and following their directions is the appropriate way to have a good relationship with a teacher.

To answer your question, yes, it can be unhealthy for you to want an adult like friendship with your teachers. Rather than thinking of it as distancing, think about the healthy boundaries described above. Perhaps ask yourself how to channel your need to support and be friendly into your own peer relationships instead of those with your teachers. Once you start experimenting with putting more energy (with counselor support if needed) into your same age friendships, my guess is that you will get along better with your teachers, will have less worry about them, and will feel better about yourself, too.

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