Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Making and Keeping Friends at Different Stages of Life

Friendships are often one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling parts of our lives. Not only do they provide us with company to engage in enjoyable activities, but they enrich our lives through shared meaning. Support systems have been linked to higher levels of happiness and improved overall health. While some friendships may only last for certain periods of time, others extend over a lifetime, and most of us recognize these relationships as some of the most important we will have. Even for people who generally feel they don't have trouble making friends, there are stages in life when this task may seem more difficult, leaving us feeling lonely or doubting our abilities to connect to others. If this feels like it is true for you, or you've noticed that this might be the case for your child, here are some ideas that might help in this process.

Children
With all the exciting activities that occur at this age, children may feel overwhelmed with the task of fitting in with their peers. Although you want their education to come first, making friends is most likely to be at the top of their agenda, and is also important to their development. Here are a few ways you can help your children establish relationships with their peers:

1. Teach your child important social skills that are essential to establishing and maintaining friendships such as sharing, listening, following rules, and playing fair. Allow your child to participate in events and activities that enable them to practice and implement these social skills. You can reinforce positive social interactions through verbal praise and, if this is something that is a real challenge for your child, through a structured reward system.

2. Provide opportunities for your child to play and socialize with other children their age such as play dates, sleepovers, car pooling, and extra-curricular activities. They should interact with their peers from school and in your neighborhood.

3. Read books with your children that teaches them about friendships and social skills.

4. It isn't uncommon for children to be timid or anxious about making friends. Be attentive to any red flags that your child may display that could indicate he or she is having trouble such as throwing tantrums, withdrawal from you more than is normal for them, or other changes in behavior or emotions.

Teenagers
During the teenage years, your son or daughter will encounter many possibilities to make friends such as participating in athletics, attending school events, and participating in extracurricular school activities. This is also a time when 'fitting in' and feeling connected to peers seems the most important to them, so not feeling part of a group or connected to people can feel especially difficult during these years. Here are some ways to help your teen navigate their social world:

1. Let your teen see how you interact with your friends. Because they are entering the young adult phase, it is important for them to see examples of mature, adult interactions. This can also help your teen better understand how positive friendships in adulthood look. If they are willing to go, take your teen to lunch with you and a friend.

2. Encourage your teen to partake in social activities that would enable him or her to meet other teens. This can include going to the movies, attending a dance, or eating dinner with a group of their peers. You can use your home as a 'safe' location for teens to hang out, yet still have adult supervision, by giving them a private area or room to spend time.

3. Talk to your teen about the meaning and importance of friendships. Discuss what makes someone a "good friend" and how to resolve conflicts and/or manage meaningful friendships they may have with others.

4. Monitor how your teen interacts with their friends. If you feel he or she is in an unhealthy relationship with one of their peers, attempt to provide guidance.

Post college-graduates
The college years provide young adults with numerous opportunities to meet new people as well as gain unique experiences. However, upon graduating, many people find it difficult or overwhelming with having to "start over" and meet new people, especially when relocating to a new town or city. Here are some ways that might help you connect to others after college:

1. Get involved in your local community. Join clubs, teams, or other extra-curricular and/or service based groups that allow you to meet and interact with others on a weekly basis. Working with others to reach a common goal is a great way to connect, and takes some of the pressure off this process, as you already share a common interest.

2. Invite people to engage in some sort of activity such as going to lunch, getting coffee or a drink, or hanging out at your place.

3. If you're shy or lacking in confidence, don't be discouraged because these feelings are not uncommon. Talk to someone else who has dealt with this stage of life, too.

Adulthood
As we enter adulthood, we often feel settled into patterns of making and maintaining friendships. However, many people feel dissatisfied with their outlets for social connection or the number of people to whom they truly feel close. When we are set in our ways, we can lack imagination regarding ways and places to connect to others. Here are some ideas about how to connect to new friends as adults:

1. Attend functions in your community that cater to something you are interested in but may not have tried before. This enables you to interact with people who you will begin to see on a regular basis. This could be joining a local charity with regular volunteer hours, or taking classes at a community center.

2. Join a group that involves doing something you enjoy yet keeps you active such as a yoga class or a golf club. This allows you to meet people with common interests, providing conversation starters that help take the pressure off the anxiety provoking introduction and connection process.

3. Invite family over for dinner. You can consider choosing members you feel most close or comfortable with or those who you want to get to know better, and set a theme for a dinner party. If you are in a relationship, consider having favorite members of both yours and your partner's family over together. This can deepen pre-existing relationships and lead to more regular family events and connections.

If you find your child or yourself having a little more difficulty making friends than you would like, speaking with a psychologist may help identify barriers and provide ideas for help moving past them.

Written by:  Lepage Associates Solution-Based Psychological and Psychiatric Services, 5842 Fayetteville Road, Suite 106, Durham, NC 27713  www.lepageassociates.com

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