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5 ways to shore up boys’ social skills

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Lori Oberbroeckling watched her son Kaden, 12, text friends about getting together, realizing he didn’t know how to execute a plan. She needed to teach him the basics, as she had done with tying his shoes or making his bed.

“I had to give him the right questions to ask, like, ‘Where are we going? Who’s taking us?’” said Oberbroeckling, a corporate executive in Phoenix.

Like Kaden, many boys want to spend time with friends but lack the skills needed to connect. Others may feel pressure to avoid social risks that could expose them to rejection or embarrassment.

As a result, “boys tend to have smaller social networks and fewer high-quality, reciprocal friendships than girls, and are more likely than girls to experience loneliness,” said Ioakim Boutakidis, professor of child and adolescent studies at California State University, Fullerton.

“Even though we’re more open to the idea that boys want friendship, we’ve created a culture that doesn’t value the skills associated with connection,” added Niobe Way, professor of developmental psychology at New York University and author of “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.”

Cultivating caring friendships has a positive ripple effect. Higher-quality friendships improve the self-esteem and well-being of 11- to 17-year-old boys, as Dutch researchers reported in the Journal of Adolescence in July.

And in a recent report on youth suicide trends, The Jed Foundation highlighted the power of social connections.

Here are five ways you can help boys form satisfying friendships to combat loneliness and its damaging effects.

Do your boys have individual friends and friend groups?

There’s no need to ask boys questions that put them on the defensive, such as “Don’t you want to make plans with someone?” Instead, parents can start a general conversation about social networks.

Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College and author of “Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success,” has some guidance. She’s identified three types of social networks that children might relate to: tight knitters, compartmentalizers and samplers.

“Tight knitters have one tight-knit group of friends; almost everyone is connected to one another,” McCabe said. “A compartmentalizer has two to four groups of friends, while samplers’ friendships tend to be one-on-one. They have as many friends as the other groups, but they’re less connected to one another.”

Parents should look for ways to bridge kids' online and offline lives, experts say. Connecting online can be a lifesaver for boys who don't find friendship at school. - Mayur Kakade/Moment RF/Getty Images
Parents should look for ways to bridge kids' online and offline lives, experts say. Connecting online can be a lifesaver for boys who don't find friendship at school. - Mayur Kakade/Moment RF/Getty Images

Adults can ask questions about the pros and cons of each type. For instance, tight knitters have high levels of support but may find it difficult to exit the network; compartmentalizers can struggle to balance different groups; and samplers might experience loneliness if they lack group connections.

Whatever your child’s preference, “it’s important to have close friends you can talk to and a group to do activities with,” McCabe noted.

Focus on the quality, not the number of friends, added Mitch Prinstein, science officer for the American Psychological Association.

Provide other resources to boys who resist self-disclosure. For instance, “Like Ability: The Truth About Popularity,” which Prinstein coauthored, can help kids understand their friendships. Congruence, a free voice-activated, self-coaching app I developed with technology entrepreneur Dave Keeler, can help boys learn to navigate scenarios such as feeling uncomfortable in new social situations or coping with rejection.

Help boys take social risks

For boys who need logistical help, “Say, ‘I want you to text three people,’” said Christopher Pepper, a teacher who coordinates boys’ groups in San Francisco Public Schools. Others may worry about hosting guests.

“Boys will say, ‘I don’t want them to be bored,’” said Ryan Wexelblatt, director of ADHD Dude, which offers in-person social skills programs for boys in Tucson, Arizona. “They can present a friend with two options, such as mini golf or bowling, instead of saying, ‘What do you want to do?’’’

Model the behavior. “My boys, who are 15 and 17, know I feel a deep sense of obligation to a friend I don’t see very often,” Boutakidis said. “They see me intentionally checking in on him — sending a text, making a phone call.”

But even small overtures can feel scary. “We’re still raising boys in a way that they don’t feel like they have permission to create the kinds of emotional safety nets they need,” said Andrew Reiner, author of “Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency.”

Suggest they start with a small admission, such as “I hate feeling this way,” Prinstein said. “Very often someone will say, ‘I’ve felt that way, too.’”

Boys may not admit it, but adults can ask them if they ever feel lonely at school. Acknowledge “that’s really common,” said Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and The Jed Foundation’s senior clinical adviser for external affairs. It’s important to assess boys’ well-being because “feelings of isolation are connected to increased suicidal thinking,” she said.

Help boys balance technology and in-person fun

Nearly half of teens ages 13 to 17 say they’re using the internet “almost constantly,” a recent Pew Research Center report found.

“Some boys gravitate towards tech … because it doesn’t require much of them,” said Sameer Hinduja, codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center and criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University. “The problem is that the relationships they will need to have as they get older … are going to require something from them and won’t cater to their preference for ease and convenience.”

Technology has an upside, Hurley noted. “We know that certain marginalized groups, especially LGBTQIA kids, are building positive relationships online, and for boys who don’t find friendship (at school), connecting online can be lifesaving.”

Look for ways to bridge online and offline lives. Hurley suggested saying, “It seems like you really like these kids you’re gaming with — what if we had a gaming party?”

Boys also can mine friends’ posts to launch conversations. “A friend who writes, ‘I’m sick of studying,’ may be looking to see if (others feel) the same pressure,” Prinstein said. “They can say, ‘I saw your post — how are you doing now?’”

Teach boys to be curious

“We don’t teach interpersonal curiosity,” Way said. She suggested asking boys questions such as, “Why are you drawn to your friends?’ rather than “Did you do your homework?”

Encourage boys to learn three new facts about a close friend or brainstorm five questions to ask a new friend, added Daryl Howard, director of the Building Our Network of Diversity (BOND) Project.

If you’re with boys who aren’t talking, Howard recommended asking either-or questions such as “Commanders or Cowboys?” Then ask why. “They’re going to find a connection or get an answer so unexpected that that becomes the connection point,” he said.

Help boys read social cues

At Sterling Hall School in Toronto, teachers facilitate community circles to teach boys how to repair friendships and show empathy, said principal Rick Parsons. “Whether they talk about a terrible injustice on Foursquare or the unfairness in how players were selected for the soccer team, inevitably another boy will share, ‘This is what happened to me.’ ”

Initiate similar conversations at home. If a boy makes an offensive remark, say, “Can you explain why you think it’s funny?” Pepper said. Boys are more likely to connect through sarcasm and joking, he said, and that can be misinterpreted. Help them understand that if friends stop smiling or are silent, they may have crossed a line.

It isn’t about making boys’ and girls’ friendships look the same, Reiner said. “You can have the playfulness and upmanship, but boys also need to know that they can go to these same guys for another kind of emotional support,” he said. “When they start to feel that they’re not alone, that’s taking the bricks of the wall down right there.”

Phyllis L. Fagell is a school counselor, a clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group and the author of “Middle School Superpowers: Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times” and “Middle School Matters.”

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