When a child, a three-year-old or a fifteen-year-old, looks up at you and says, “I don’t have any friends.” It hurts. It just hurts. With the three-year-old, generally, the parent can fix it, sit down and build something, read a book, play with the stuffies, and even arrange a playdate. But it becomes very tricky when playdates become uncool, and mom can’t pick those friends anymore (darn those teens for having opinions). When your child is lonely, your first instinct is to help.
Every parent has a moment where their child’s friends’ interests diverge, and suddenly the sporty kid is spending more time with the music kids, or the gamer kids move on to a game that perhaps your family doesn’t allow. Sometimes it’s a move to a different town, a change in schools, or the best friend moving away. Many changes in a child’s social environment can suddenly shift the burden of socializing onto your child’s lap. In grade school, the school itself can help. A group of kids sits in class 180 days of the year. Somewhere in that group, your kids can find someone who also loves a book, a tv character a game.
But as kids grow, they spend less and less time in that forced friend situation; looking around at 25 new kids every 60 minutes can be daunting. And let’s not forget; they are supposed to listen to a teacher for 55 of those 60 minutes. A Harvard University study on the current loneliness epidemic in the United States states that 61% of young adults feel “serious loneliness.” But with all the transition our children go through and friends pulled into new, almost full-time extra-curricular activities, it is also not surprising.
So how can parents help?
In March 2020, my husband and I discussed the possibility of the school shutting down and how the kids would manage. We started strategizing, and like many inexperienced parents, we were wrong about everything. We were worried about our extraverted child who struggled in a traditional school environment, and we felt we needed the structure and help her maintain those social connections. At the same time, we almost laughed about our little introvert and how she might think this was a vacation.
Boy, were we wrong.
Our teenage extrovert was a Social-Wiz. She woke up every morning at 7:00 AM and called her best friend to get her out of bed. The two of them stayed on the phone the whole day, starting by eating breakfast together and adding people to the call as the day progressed. If they were in an online class on their computer, the phone was facing the ceiling, but they could still hear each other and what was happening in the other classroom.
During their work time, they would lay on the floor, their bodies miles apart, and do homework together. If they wanted to play, they went outside and ran around their perspective backyards, still phone in hand. TV shows and streaming movies were watched simultaneously in both houses while the girls discussed the happenings live. I once walked in, and she was reading a book. I asked her a question, and she said, “Mom, we are reading!” Oops! Yes, there was the phone sitting on the arm of the chair. Both girls snuggled up, reading their separate books. Our little extrovert knew how to keep connected even during the silence.
My Introverted Teen is Lonely
My introvert enjoyed the first days of the shutdown. She slept in, got up just in time for classes, ate breakfast in front of her monitor. She read, worked on a costume, drew, and watched an old television show. Her crash came days later. I found my type-A child curled in a ball, no longer wanting to attend her now-online school, and I heard those horrible words. “I don’t have any friends.”
How was this possible? My child is lonely? Only a few weeks ago, there could be anywhere from 5-10 girls playing in this house at any time. What could she mean?
- I suggested zoom lunches to see her friends.
- I suggested everyone watch a Netflix movie while on a phone call.
- I suggested baking over the phone together.
- I suggested calling
Every suggestion was met with the same “You are my mom. You don’t understand.”
So, I called her friends’ parents and found that this group of primarily introverted teens all had similar responses to the shutdown. All of these teens wondered where their friends had gone. We moms stepped in. Zoom lunches were arranged multiple times per week, each mom using the excuse that “the friend” needed help. Using the same subterfuge, we set up a Netflix sleepover for the girls that weekend. Within a few days, all the girls were doing better and, now that they understood the new playing field, resumed ownership of the social portion of their lives. Crisis averted.
But the situation stuck with both Addie (yes, I am Addie’s mom) and me, causing us both to go on different journeys researching what happened during the pandemic. Addison has talked about her journey. My journey was more about exploring what happened to Addison. How did a kid surrounded by friends suddenly feel alone? Was it just a blip? Time of the month thing? What happened? Never in my mind did I think my daughter wasn’t smart enough to figure out she could facetime with her friends while eating lunch. But that’s what happened.
I suggested Zoom lunches, and Addie flat-out refused. Upon hearing a friend was struggling with loneliness, Addie jumped on the opportunity to have lunch with a friend in need. Addison, an intelligent introvert, couldn’t pick up a phone and call her friend when she wanted to talk. Why?
More than a year later, when Addie and I were discussing one of the issues with teen isolation, I asked her directly what happened that week.
“Mom, I know you and dad are smart, but I can’t agree with you when I am down. You can tell me how it works, what’s going on – I know you know, but my brain won’t let me hear you in that moment.”Addison Vogt
Is Addie stubborn? No, It turns out she is right – there are lots and lots of studies on this. Here’s one article that explains this chemical reaction in adolescents.
In very simplistic terms, your kids are growing up. For their brains to be open to new ideas, they chemically start shutting out the voice of the people who nurtured them as babies. These voices, especially moms, have overridden all other decisions made for them their entire lives. Now that they need to transition to make decisions, they stop listening to that voice. And their brain is helping them do this.
So that’s why she couldn’t jump on my idea, but when the same idea came up for her best friend, she jumped on the opportunity to help out a friend.
Asking for Help Can be an Easy Answer
According to Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, “For years, people thought the best thing you could do for a lonely person is to give them support. Actually, we found that it’s about receiving and also giving back. So the best thing you can do for someone who is lonely is not to give them help but ask them for help. So you give them a sense of worth and a chance to be altruistic. Even if we’re getting the best care, we still feel lonely if we can’t give something back. The care is extremely valuable but it’s not enough.”
By using deception and saying friends needed help, friends needed the calls, the zoom lunches, the Netflix sleepovers; by using that call for help, Addison was able to overcome her mental obstacles and help out her friends. In helping out her friends, she filled her loneliness void.
By helping each other, every one of the girls was better off.
Finally, why didn’t she reach out to her friends when she got lonely? This was the crux of the issue for me. I mean, she’s a teenager; sometimes, she doesn’t listen. I get that. She felt to help out her friends when she saw they needed help. None of that surprised me. But how could my brilliant daughter not figure out she was lonely and send a text to her friends?
Extroverts can Find a way to connect
It turns out she wasn’t alone. According to Anahita Shokrkonto from the University of Alberta, “Extroverts find a way to connect, even when conditions make it difficult to do so, whereas introverts are less adept at maintaining their fewer social connections.” So, an introvert in school gets their socializing quota without making an effort. It’s only when the paradox changes that they find out they are missing this skill set.
So the good news, I guess, is that my husband and I weren’t the only ones that assumed the introverts would have an easier time in the pandemic. The New York Times and Bloomberg both published articles about introverts, “Loving the lockdown.” The better news is that Addison came out of the pandemic stronger than she went in. Life’s adversity had taught her how to socialize, reach out and not take friendships for granted.
OK, that’s your kid; how can I help my kid?
In one of my early jobs, I was a product manager within a group of engineers. Shortly after I started, I took them to lunch to celebrate a milestone. We sat down. We ordered food and handed the waiter the menus. And then no one spoke. Not one person.
Using my limited conversation skills, I asked one person, “have you seen any good movies lately” and that started a short conversation about that movie. Then silence. I asked the next person, “have you seen any good movies lately?” and that started a slightly longer conversation about that movie. Then silence. I asked the next person, “have you seen any good movies lately?” And so on, there were about ten people at the table, and I went around the table, starting at my left and ending on my right. It felt so awkward to me. It felt forced. I remember when I looked at the last person, they smiled at me, and I didn’t even have to ask, they told the table about the latest movie they had seen, and again a conversation ensued about that movie.
Two views of the same Conversation
When we returned to the office, I sat at my desk exhausted, laid my head on the table, and thought about crying. I figured I had hosted the worst lunch ever—a complete failure of a celebration. Later the CTO came to my desk to thank me. He said he’d never seen his team so animated and thought they had a great time. I thought about that smile, the one on the last person’s face. I thought he was laughing at me a little, mocking me for my repetition, my inability to draw them out. It turns out he was excited for his turn to talk. His turn to express himself. His turn to talk, knowing what to say and how to respond.
Friendships were formed and Team was Built
We would have a monthly lunch for the next two years. For a group of extreme introverts, it turns out they just needed little questions to get them going. By the end of the two years, We would order our food, and everyone would look at me, and I would just ask one question, any good restaurants they’d eaten at, any good games they’d played, television shows they’d seen, etc. And off they would go, smiling, laughing, talking about their recent experiences, debating which was the best. They were incredibly polite, listening and asking questions about each person’s experience before starting their own story.
New people joining the team would always look on in horror. Would they be expected to talk? But by this point, everyone knew how to ask, “How about you? Have you, fill in the blank, recently?” It was an easy question, the new person would engage, and the group grew and grew. Despite my early fears, no one ever said no to those lunches, and our engineering team was the most successful in the company. They were engaged and connected; they checked in on each other and encouraged one other to grow. They had become friends.
So yes, I am a believer in conversation starters. I am also a believer in working with your kids. I think it is an especially important step for this generation because we, as a society, don’t give our children opportunities to observe parents conversing at the dinner table. Observation is essential in the learning process, and kids aren’t growing up watching their parents talk in this age of rushed dinners. We don’t have huge Sunday family suppers in this country anymore, so we don’t see intergenerational conversations either. Kids are learning from their phones and witty television repertoire. So yes, as Addie was growing up, we played a game at the dinner table that a friend of mine taught me. And as such, my insanely introverted child can converse with just about anyone she is in front of.
Having seen the results of Addie’s focus groups, I see her conversation starters offer authentic conversations in a teenage-voice work. So yes, please, support Addie’s Kickstarter Campaign. I am her mother, and I want her to succeed. So many of the kids from her initial trials reached out during the two years she has been developing the product to ask if she had any cards, like the ones they tried. Those were her first positive reviews.
How does The Conversation Game work?
For the parents, as a mom or dad, play the card games with your child (here are links to the cool card games kids are playing now). Start by just playing. Some of the games take as few as 3 minutes, and some of the games will help your child with math facts. While you play, slowly introduce the topics on the cards; introducing one is a milestone.
Tell your own stories of awkward moments. or if that’s too hard, tell my story from above. Laugh at the cards; they are meant to be fun. They are meant to inspire a memory, humor, or just the start of a story. “Did you see this one?” “I know how I’d answer this.” “I bet you can’t figure out a follow-up question.” These are great ways to learn how to fill awkward silent moments. Use the tips for taking a starter and turning it into a conversation while playing the game.
The Skills The Conversation Game focuses on:
- Lead with Curiosity: follow up with questions. Show genuine interest in the other person—express curiosity about thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
- Be Agreeable: use your manners, don’t interrupt, and focus on the positives of this conversation. The purpose here is to flush out if a connection is possible, not to be right, give advice or prove anything, but explore the possibility of connecting.
- Use Body Language; And nonverbal cues. Nod your head, smile, and lean in to show that you are engaged in the conversation.
- Actively Listen. Pay attention to what the other person is saying and try to understand their perspective. Ask questions that will help you understand.
- Eye Contact: Make Eye contact, put the phone down, and give the conversation your attention. Just like a small plant, this connection will need nurturing.
Coming to Someplace New.
If your family is completely new to the area, setting up opportunities where your child can meet new people is vital. You, child, should be encouraged to:
- Join clubs or organizations that align with their interests. This can be a great way to meet others with similar hobbies or passions. This can be an acting club or a soccer league; there are countless activities and just as many organizations that support them.
- Volunteer for a cause they care about. Not only will they be making a positive impact in the community, but they’ll also have the opportunity to meet new people who are interested in the same cause.
- Take classes or workshops in a subject that interests them. This can be a great way to meet others who have similar interests and learn new skills.
- Participate in sports or other physical activities. This can be a great way to meet new people and stay active.
- Attend social events, such as parties, concerts, or festivals. This can be a fun way to meet new people and have new experiences.
The school can help
While you are playing these games at home, privately reach out to the school. Find a way your child can help someone else or another group.
- Does your kid like videotaping from their phone or editing film – someone needs some activity filmed at their school, always!
- How about taking photographs? Every event at your school could probably use a photographer.
- Putting up websites, can your child do this? If so, there is a club that needs their help.
- Managing social media, ditto for this; every club activity and funny group needs a social media manager.
- Do they like to write? Articles are needed for the booster clubs, teams, the school newsletter,
- Is there a set that needs a painter? Does the theater at your school need stuff built? All the crafters are needed for this amazing group of friends.
- Does your child play a musical instrument? There is probably a band that needs a guitarist.
Get the person that needs your child’s skills to reach out and ask for help. It can be the other parent. Harvest your child’s skills and interests, call the school, and figure out the person who can ask for help.
You can also reach out to the parent community.
Is your child super great at language, math, or softball? Is there a kid with similar interests that needs support in one of those areas? Call the parent, and see if that parent would be willing to ask your child for help. And while your child is helping, they can use their newfound conversation starter skills you are working on in the evenings to make new friends, reconnect with the old, or have that moment of human connection.
I hope that this helps you feel empowered to get started. If you ever want to reach out, please feel free to drop me a note. I was scared for two weeks. Addison’s research has taught me that other moms are experiencing this gut-wrenching fear for much more extended periods of time. I would love to help, and if nothing else, I would love to hear your story.