Making friends as an adult is definitely not like making friends as a kid.

Remember how easy it was to make a new friend when you were young? Five minutes sharing a slide and suddenly you're bonded for life.

But as we grow older, making friends can become much harder. So hard, in fact, that some people equate having a large group of close friends to a miracle.


Friendships are an important part of life at any age.

Most everyone wants and needs friends, and research shows that friendships can have a huge effect on our physical and mental health. There's not much we can do about friendships that diminish and change as we age — people move, start families and new careers, and shift to new social circles — but it's important to keep forming meaningful, long-lasting connections with people throughout life, whether you're 25 or 80.

It's something that affects us all.

"Making friends is hard for everyone," says Ellen Hendriksen, clinical psychologist and author of "How to Be Yourself," a guide on learning to tame social anxiety. "It's not just you." But knowing you're not alone isn't going to get you the friend circle you want.

Here are five tips to getting into the mindset of making friends — and then going out and doing it.

[rebelmouse-image 19397461 dam="1" original_size="750x388" caption="Photo by "Friends"/NBC." expand=1]Photo by "Friends"/NBC.

1. Relax (aka the hardest step).

In college, my abnormal psychology professor told us about a guy who wanted to make friends — five friends (because we all seem have an arbitrary number of pals we think is appropriate). He went to a party and met five people he liked and got their numbers. This guy was so excited that he started calling his new friends immediately, asking them to do things and inviting them for coffee nearly every day.

Of course, his overexcitement became clingy, his new acquaintances suddenly started making excuses, and he ended up being a negative example for a group of undergrads learning about problems in human behavior.

"You can't make friends like a poacher," Hendriksen says. "Focus on being open and curious and thoughtful. Ask questions, listen when others respond, be friendly, and when you slowly inch into the mix, be intentional."

Allow yourself to be in the moment and ask questions that come up naturally. If someone says they're having a hard week at work, ask them about it. If someone tells you they've recently been on a trip, commit to asking something more than just "how was it?" Be interested.

2. Repetition is key.

Most articles about how to make friends suggest that people find a hobby, join a group, or volunteer. But Hendriksen says that's not a fail-safe solution.

Ultimately, it's not the activity that matters — although it should be something you enjoy — it's the fact that you're finding a place where other people can get to know you over time. In fact, since more and more research shows that making friends takes longer than previously thought, it's important to give it some time; Hendriksen suggests giving it a season.  

You don't have to join an official group or club. Hendriksen once turned an acquaintance into a good friend when the two bonded over their mission to try every Mexican restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The key is to engage in something that allows you to get to know other people and lets them to get to know you.

"You can go to the same dog park every morning," Hendriksen says. "You can join an Ultimate Frisbee team. You can walk your kids to the bus stop every day and chat with the other parents. Or you can start something with repetition. Have a weekly viewing party for your favorite TV show, start a writer's group, start a new mom's playgroup or a boozy book club."

Really, whatever works for you as long as other people are involved.

[rebelmouse-image 19397463 dam="1" original_size="750x399" caption="Photo by "Will & Grace"/NBC." expand=1]Photo by "Will & Grace"/NBC.

3. Disclose, but don’t confess.

Imagine you're meeting someone for the first time. You ask them how they're doing, and they say "fine." There's not much to work with because the other person hasn't disclosed anything. What else is there to say?

Now imagine a different person. You ask them how they're doing and their response is one of sheer distress: "Nothing is going right in my life. Parking was hell, my job kills me, and I'm still not over my ex." I imagine your response to this diatribe wouldn't be particularly positive.

And why should it be? These are things you'd tell to a very close friend, not just someone you've met at your new book club.

This doesn't mean we can never say anything negative — after all, we all have bad days. But your goal is to keep the connection on even footing. Sharing a little bit about yourself is fine, but the goal is to lead to further conversation rather than a deep emotional connection right off the bat.

Why doesn't confession work? Because it's too much, too soon. The goal of confession can be to foster a sense of kinship, but when that strong emotional connection has new acquaintances wondering whether you're looking for a friend or a therapist, the relationship is already off balance. You can get closer, but give it time first.

"Don't let them see all of the mess right away," Hendriksen says, "but let them see a little peek at the mess. What do you do? How do you spend your time? What do you think about? What are you like? Where are you from? What's your story?"

She notes that disclosing things about yourself may feel weird and even "selfish" at first, but it's just because you’re not used to it. Keep trying.

4. Don’t fear the follow-through.

All of this meeting new people and sharing interests is leading somewhere, right? You also want to make more lasting connections with some of your new acquaintances.

To do that, you must initiate a plan and then follow through.

Sometimes, you'll be lucky and someone will ask you to do something first. But most people are a little bit terrified about stepping outside their comfort zone. And that means making the plans and following through can be tricky — for everyone.

The key is to be specific. "Do you want to hang out sometime?" seems like a nice, safe question that gets to whether someone wants to spend more time together, but it doesn't work. Even if the person says yes, you have no concrete timeline in place. You've thrown the ball into their court and are now at the whim of their schedule.

"Do you want to go see a movie on Saturday?" for instance, or "do you want to take a hike with me on Sunday?" are both great options to feel out if someone's interested in a specific activity on a specific day. If they say yes, then you're good to go.

If they say no? Well, they might come up with an alternative activity.

[rebelmouse-image 19397464 dam="1" original_size="750x395" caption="Photo by "The Golden Girls"/ABC." expand=1]Photo by "The Golden Girls"/ABC.

5. Allow yourself to be anxious. And then go for it anyway.

We've all been there: Someone invites you to an event, and you get excited, but when the day of the event comes, you'd rather be doing anything else. After all, comfort zones are ... well, comfortable.

Although the urge to cancel may be strong, recognizing that these feelings are normal is the first step to overcoming them.

Your brain, Hendriksen says, comes up with worst-case scenarios — What if you say something foolish? What if the other person is only doing it to be nice? What if you have nothing in common? — to keep you safe. "But really, it's a false alarm."

Remember when you were terrified about that presentation in class or that important meeting you were leading at work? Did it end up going OK, even if it was hard? Then why shouldn't this? After all, if you don't try, you'll never be ready.

Though most of us would rather, as Hendriksen says, cocoon ourselves away and hope that we'll emerge as beautiful social butterflies, the truth is that experience is the only way we can get there. So keep moving forward. You just have to take the first step. ‌

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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