How to help children make and keep friends – Lifotravel

As we head into a new school year, parents have a lot to consider. One thing that research shows we should put at the top of our lists: Helping our children make and maintain friends.

“Making friendships is one of the most important developmental tasks for tweens and teens,” said Berna Güroğlu, a neuroscience professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, in a 2022 research paper on the power of friendship. To think this is a learned skill may seem absurd, but our children are coming of age in a time where social interactions are often online — and after spending months locked away from peers during the height of the pandemic.

“Making a friend is a complex task that on the surface looks easy,” says Ryan Hendrix, a Northern California speech and language pathologist who specializes in social cognition and communication. “Friendship is a social executive function task, and there’s a lot of effort that goes into even figuring out who you might want to have a connection with.”

In times of heightened stress and uncertainty, how can we encourage kids to build genuine friendships in a new school year? Here are strategies to help.

Start by defining what a friendship means. We often skip over this step in conversations with teens and young adults, says Courtney Murphy, a San Francisco Bay-area neuropsychologist and clinical psychologist. There are different levels to friendships and “kids sometimes have their own expectation of what is normal in a friendship.” Young people need to recognize that genuine friends “shouldn’t be people you are consistently losing sleep over because they are treating you poorly.”

“A lot of people are drawn to what they see [as] the popular kids,” notes Hendrix, who encourages youngsters to think more about “finding those people that you have overlap with, and how those overlapping areas of interest can foster mutual additional connection.” For many kids, she adds, it can be important to remind them that friendship should be rooted in a mutual experience that allows you to feel comfortable about who you are.

Help children notice before jumping in. Kids can get caught up in feeling that they need to jump into introductions, and that might be overwhelming for some. Instead, Hendrix encourages kids to start by noticing who is being friendly or who might have similar or shared interests. A good candidate would be a classmate who has an interesting T-shirt design or backpack keychain or intriguing design on a folder. With existing friendships, observing whether interactions are energizing or depleting can provide context clues if there are shifts or changes. And, it’s not just about observing others — much of developing genuine friendships is rooted in knowing your own interests and being open and curious about new interests as circumstances change.

Realize that many kids are out of practice. “One of the key aspects of maintaining good friendships is knowing what to do when things don’t go well, and resolving those conflicts,” says Jelena Obradović, an associate professor in the developmental and psychological sciences program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. She notes how cognitive flexibility, or the ability to shift between competing and contrasting rules and perspectives, is critical in building friendships. Being able to see things from another person’s point of view to adapt quickly to changing situations and to integrate ideas and suggestions can take practice, she says. These are skills that are useful during the school years, and also are helpful as students move through college and the workforce.

Given the past few years of pandemic isolation, though, many students may be out of practice with key social skills, says Michelle McPhatter, a school counselor for 10 years in Prince William County, Va., and former speech and language pathologist. Some students may prefer to be at home talking online rather than socializing with a classmate sitting next to them, and in-person conversations may provide different requirements for problem solving and flexibility than those online.

Encourage kids to identify their social goals. Last year, I spoke with one set of parents concerned about their ninth-grader’s lack of weekend plans. But I soon discovered that their son felt connected enough spending time with friends during the school lunch period and after-school activities. He preferred quieter weekends so he could focus on solo activities like reading as his way to recharge. Asking kids to identify their social goals lets parents see if their own goals for those friendships are aligned. If they aren’t, the parents or caregivers can explore how to proceed.

Trusted adults may have to take the lead here, because many kids haven’t fully learned how to be intentional about making and maintaining friendships. A caring adult — like a school counselor, therapist, or family friend — can help brainstorm ways to reach that goal, which could include trying new activities and experiences.

Explain that friendships don’t always last forever, so it’s smart to widen “connection circles.” “At the middle school level, learning what genuine friendships are and realizing that friendships can go through changes can be hard,” McPhatter says. “For some students, it can be hurtful to have a friend in elementary school and then get to middle school and it’s totally different.” Much of McPhatter’s school counseling time focuses on providing space for students to self-reflect and problem-solve as group dynamics change.

Helping students discover multiple places where they feel comfortable can act as an important preventive buffer, especially as friendships ebb and flow. For example, a teen who interacts with different peers in marching band, a sports team, a religious youth group or summer camp can more easily weather the loss of a friend or failing to make a new team. Adult modeling can also be helpful as a way of observing your own non-overlapping connection circles.

Students new to a school community can check opportunities at orientation and meet-and-greets or other non-academic settings.

Don’t narrow focus to one activity, and pay attention to context cues. Neuropsychologist Murphy notes that early specialization in sports and other activities can backfire if a student doesn’t make a new team or their interests change, so keep options open for multiple activities to build self-worth and self-acceptance.

She also reminds caregivers to be sensitive to kids and teens who experience emotional barriers to developing and maintaining friendships, especially when tied to mental health concerns. She recalls a parent whose child was experiencing severe depression, “and the parent kept sending friends over to try to help motivate him — but it just made him feel worse, because he couldn’t get himself out of bed.” Meeting children where they are, and providing them with time, structure and support depending on circumstances, can be the most important first step in encouraging authentic new connections.

Ana Homayoun is the author of four books, most recently “Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission.”

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