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Looking Behind the Masks When Making and Keeping Friends

By Dr. Jay Greenfeld

The challenges that emerge with making friends, keeping friends, and enhancing friendships is continuing to become more complicated as we evolve with technology. The more frequent children and teenagers rely on text messages and various realms of social media to create and strengthen connections with one another, ironically, the less connected we become from each other. Many children have become accustomed to relying on technology to communicate with their friends leading them to lose or never use the core social skills needed to enhance connections. The challenge that emerges with that is they can often become anxious when needing to make new friends, struggling to know appropriate boundaries, and uncertain about how to start conversations with others.

Although it may be difficult for your children to initiate social contact at times or they become anxious at the thought of connecting with others, it will be imperative you create the time to practice basic social skills. Start by having them make conversation with people in your family and focus on both nonverbal and verbal communication. Ensure that eye contact and appropriate space between them and the others is well-established. Then brainstorm and practice with them what topics are appropriate to discuss with their friends, their teachers or coaches, and parents. Once a baseline has been established (and that will be very different for each child), emphasize how to generalize the skills to their classroom or children on the playground. If they have an undying love for technology, use that as a reward. If your children are older, establish a precedent with them that they need to be the ones making appointments for themselves, asking for help at public places (e.g., grocery stores), initiating conversations with people that may share similar interests, and taking an interest in the lives of others. If these skills are not practiced often, both children and teenagers will likely rely heavily on text messages, avoid contact with others and will lose the natural ability to converse face to face leading to further complications in the future.

The future challenges that emerge when they are not practicing these basic social skills is struggling when needing to apply for a job or volunteer position. The reality is there are basic interview skills that are needed when meeting new friends. Help your children see that they want to represent the best AND most authentic version of themselves. Ensure they are paying just as much attention to asking questions about the other person as much as they are sharing honest interests and abilities about themselves. I have worked with many clients over the years who have exceptional academic and intellectual abilities, but because they have not needed to rely on using basic conversational skills, they struggle when applying for jobs, hesitate, and often sell themselves short. They often develop a low sense of self-efficacy and become very anxious when needing to interview. The key is to build these skills right from the beginning because realistically, children are interviewing for the job of being the best friend for the job. Establishing a friendship or getting the job/ hiring for the job does not necessarily mean one friend needs to have all aspects children need in a friendship.

Friends can play many different roles in your children's lives. Friends can support, motivate, challenge, and can be people at school and away from school that have a significant impact on their lives. Sometimes many children become anxious about meeting new friends, meeting new people at new schools, or trying to fit in with different groups at school. Regardless of whether or not your child is starting a new school, living in a new neighborhood, or changing their interests that may lead to needing to re-establish a new network of friends, children often feel anxious about forming these new connections. Aside from talking with your children about preparing for evolving social circles, it will also be imperative that your children identify their strengths, their goals for meeting new people, what type of friend they want to be and what type of friends they want to seek out. Every child has their own set of strengths and challenges and it will be important to your children to recognize the differences in each student and focus their efforts on creating an expansive network of friends and decreasing the discomfort of establishing new connections. The more effort they put into expanding their friendship network, the less anxious they will likely be both as a children and more so as they age.

As much as we would like to think that the idea of meeting new people ends once you have established friends in grade school, we all know too well that creating and enhancing friendships continues throughout adulthood. These skills of creating friendships are lifelong and if we focus too much on screens to make friends, we lose the connection with people. Of course children do not need to have the same level of depth with each person in their class, grade, school, or team, but helping your children recognize they can still connect with more than one person and include others they may not see often, will be helpful for both early childhood and adolescence. Perhaps expanding their friendship network may be one of the many important goals for the school year ahead.

I recall through the many transitions in my life that it did not matter which cities I lived in, the concept was always the same. I had friends who shared some of my interests and others that shared other interests. There were some that were my age and others that were not. Then there were the friends that introduced me to new interests that I would have been less likely to seek out on my own. The more variety of friendships your children can have, the more open they likely are to be when connecting with new people --- throughout life. The one thing that remained a constant was the effort needed to initiate the connections. As much as we would like people to go door-to-door looking to make connections and build friendships, we will leave the door-to-door bit for the end of the month when we can hide behind costumes and masks. Therefore, when the masks come off at the end of this month, creating friendships at any phase of life will often require openness, effort, and practice that does not rely solely on technology to really strengthen a connection. When initiating or expanding friendships, encourage and practice with your children to put forth the effort and set the example for them. Constantly adapt social circles and preferences, reminding them that being flexible in their thinking and interests with others will always be important at any age as they grow up. Finally, regardless of their life stage, remind them as their interests change, so will their friends.

Dr.Jay Greenfeld is a Clinical Psychologist with an extensive background working with children, adolescents, college students and adults with a variety of presenting concerns. He is a lecturer on Stress Management and Well-Being, with research primarily focusing on integrating exercise and other health-related behaviors into everyday life. He can be reached at Mind Matters Clinic at 204-477-8555


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