Dear Dr. Michelle:
My 13-year-old son (soon to be 14) is having a hard time maintaining friendships. As a result, he tells his dad and me that he is lonely and then moves to “online friends,” which are really people he doesn’t know. He says that when he goes online, he can be who he wants and can just tell them the good stuff. Any suggestions on how to cultivate friendships with kids he has actually met through baseball, school, etc.?
It’s good that you are paying attention to your son’s struggles with friendships. At this age, children start to rely on friendships to begin developing their self-identity. If your son needs extra help in this area, it is important that you are aware of his feelings and prepared to assist.
Regarding his ability to maintain friendships, start with observation. Have you noticed something he is doing that is turning his peers away? Is there something that his peers are doing that he doesn’t like? What behaviors are you observing that might be causing difficulty? For example: is he bossy; does he take things; is he aloof or ignoring them; or, do his peers make fun of him? If these types of behaviors are part of your concern, consider digging deeper and seeking further advice through credible resources, talking with your parenting friends, or reaching out to a counselor.
When it comes to internet friendships, find out what internet sites he is visiting and with whom he is interacting. Specifically, ensure that your son is not turning to adult-related sites for friendships. Be sure he is not posting as an adult or creating personas in order to engage with other people. If this is the case, deal with this head-on and work with him to remove such profiles and/or stop him from visiting those sites.
If your son is going online to interact with other kids and play games (Fortnite, Minecraft, etc.), this is not necessarily a bad thing. Online games are a common way for his generation to form friendships and can be an age-appropriate connection point with his peers.
To reinforce the importance of your son engaging with peers he knows, create the expectation that he is required to reach out and engage with a known peer first (online or in-person) before he is allowed time to engage online with people he has never met. This practice will require him to work on building relationships with those he already knows.
Additionally, you can help generate opportunities where your son is initiating interaction with his peers; essentially, create instances where he is noticed by his peers in a positive and subtle way. For example:
- If your family has the resources, be the family that brings a drink or snack to the baseball game, but have your son be the one to tell his teammates about the snack and pass them out.
- When baseball season is over, replace it with a different extracurricular activity so that your son is always involved with at least one peer group outside of school that he can access for ongoing peer interaction. Like baseball, find ways within this group for your son to be noticed in a positive way.
- On a monthly basis, plan at least one fun activity or event where your son can invite his peers. Help your son identify the different peer groups to draw from for invitees – school, sports, church, neighborhood. Approach the monthly activity with excitement and creativity and get your son involved in the planning as much as possible. You will want to supervise the event or help keep the activity going. With the current pandemic in mind, think of ideas that can take place outside, in the garage, in a parking lot, or even online like a football watch party in the garage, a bonfire, an online gaming event, or a socially distant movie night.
To experience success, be patient. Remember to persist even if your son resists; make these new practices an expectation rather than a suggestion and know that it will require consistency for a year or more in order to take hold.
The ideas offered will most likely require you to work harder than your son. In the end, your efforts will pay off. Not only might your son have some fun, but more importantly, he will have exposure to initiating and leading different peer experiences, which will empower him and build his confidence. Friendships take time and cannot be forced. Even if he does not find a lifetime best friend, he will learn skills necessary to build longer lasting relationships in the future.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
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