Dear Ilana and Jess: My son, Jake, has always struggled socially. He’s 13 and in the last few years, he’s never invited a friend over, and as far as I know, he’s not been invited anywhere, either. How can I help him make friends? — Linda
Dear Linda: By the time kids are Jake’s age — and usually by the time they’re in the third grade — they start to develop more select preferences. Old hobbies fall away as more serious pursuits take their place. This process can lend itself to new connections, built on the strong foundation of shared interests. In many ways, building a social life is really about finding a community. So, before Jake can find like-minded friends, he first needs to find out what he likes.
Make a list of the teams, activities and extra curriculars Jake is involved in. Sit down with him and ask which of these activities is his favorite. If he isn’t sure, pose the question this way: Do you have the most fun when you’re at soccer, piano, or pottery? Once he chooses (or if he doesn’t) ask Jake to write down 3 things he likes and 3 things he dislikes about each hobby or activity. This will give you both a better sense of his interests and the nuances of his personality.
If Jake isn’t involved in any extracurricular activities, help him to outline his interests. Consider what you already know about his tendencies and talents. For example, does Jake seem to prefer activities that offer a lot action, like sports, or does he gravitate toward more reflective activities, like drawing? Find one way that Jake can pursue his greatest interest in a group environment; whether that’s signing up for a sculpting class, joining the chess club at school, or trying out for the volleyball team. The more comfortable Jake is with an environment and activity, the more likely he is to succeed socially.
Next, give Jake manageable, social goals that correspond with his activity of choice. For example, if Jake loves his painting class, have him introduce himself to one person, during the next class. Role-play this conversation with Jake (even and especially if he doesn’t want to). Have Jake introduce himself to you, as if you were his classmate. Even if Jake knows how to introduce himself, role-play is a great way to build social “muscle memory.” Sometimes, it’s about knowing what to say. Other times, it’s about knowing how to say it. Often, it’s both. The more Jake practices his social skills, the more fluid and effective he will be in conversation. Give honest, compassionate feedback if Jake’s approach needs adjustment. For example, if Jake rushes his introduction, say this: “Jake, I loved that you told me your name and talked about yourself in that introduction. You spoke a little fast, and I couldn’t catch all of what you said. Let’s try it again and this time, slow it down.” Remember, if you’re not honest, he won’t grow.
Help Jake identify a peer that may be a good match; someone he can relate to and hang out with. This may be someone Jake has already had a conversation with, someone he’s interested in getting to know, or someone he simply feels comfortable with. After the first social goal has been set, check to confirm that Jake has followed through, by asking who he introduced himself to and what they talked about.
Once Jake has introduced himself to a peer, have him invite them to hang out. Make sure that Jake exchanges phone numbers with this peer. Jake may push back and say that just because he talks to someone in class, doesn’t mean he wants to hang out with them. While that may be true, it’s important for Jake to learn about the range of friendships we all experience in life. Say this: “I understand what you mean, Jake. You’re right that not everyone will be your best friend, or even a close friend. But, you don’t need to be best friends to enjoy yourselves. Different friendships bring different things to your life; sometimes that can be as simple as companionship.”
Finally, and before Jake hangs out with his newfound companion, help him plan a structured activity, like bowling or seeing a football game. Why? Organized activities come with built-in conversation topics. Plus, when there’s something to do, there’s less pressure to fill space and kill time.
Say This: “Jake, with high school coming up, now’s a great time to invest in new friendships. Let’s start by choosing one person from art class/soccer practice/chess club you can invite over this weekend. They don’t have to be someone you know very well. Different friends bring different things to your life; sometimes that can be as simple as companionship.”
Not That: “Why don’t you have any plans this weekend?”
Say This, Not That is based on the work of Cognition Builders: a global, educational company headed by Ilana Kukoff (Founder & CEO) and Jessica Yuppa Huddy (Chief Learning Officer). Everywhere from New York City to California to Shanghai to Zurich, the Cognition Builders team is called upon by A-list entertainers, politicians, CEOs, and CFOs to resolve the conflicts that upend everyday life. When their work is done, the families they serve are stronger than ever. With their new book, “Say This, Not That To Your Teenage Daughter” Kukoff and Yuppa Huddy have selected the most common conversational mistakes parents make, and fixed them. For more information, please visit: https://cognitionbuilders.com. To purchase Say This, Not That To Your Teenage Daughter visit: http://publishing.andrewsmcmeel.com/books/detail?sku=9781449488055.
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