By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
During January and February here in inland Southern California, morning frost can be a mainstay. That doesn’t stop an array of hardy perennials from carpeting the ground like the sprouts that cover a Chia Pet’s back. Some are soft, like a feathery carpet to the feet. Others, like the single-stalked stinging nettle with its serrated leaves, have a bite.
When the deep green, mint-like stinging nettle plants first emerge, they’re difficult to discern among the plant variety that grows here. But walk barefoot and you’ll know it’s present. That’s what happened to my puppy, Gingersnap, whose little feet got stung by the nettle. The next day she was wary—and who could blame her?
Gingersnap had to learn that some plants sting. Others don’t.
Beyond the sting
For parents of estranged adults, making friends can feel as scary. I know the feeling of talking about the estrangement and being met with judgment. Once or twice is all it takes to make us wary of telling more. Just as Gingersnap hesitated before stepping into any new growth, we might be fearful of stepping into new friendships.
If you’re like so many parents of estranged adult children who are lonely but fearful when it comes to making friends, read on for a few tips. Not all people bite, and a tiny foray into small talk can not only get you started but have big benefits for you and your life.
Making friends after estrangement: Start small
The benefits of casual interaction are bigger than you think. Chat with the supermarket clerk, share a thought with the postal carrier, or make small talk with someone pumping gas alongside you. Those who enjoy many social interactions, even with weak social ties, are happier and have an increased sense of belonging than those who don’t.
That’s good news for people who may be feeling extra cautious or whose self-confidence has taken a hit. Making small talk is an art in and of itself, and one that can be learned. Not all small talk leads to deeper friendships, and that’s not the point, but it’s good practice and can raise confidence.
Define what friendship means to you
If you’re seeking friendships, first define what you really want. Your lifestyle, schedule, and social style will dictate the best types of friendships for you, as well as help you find them. Ask yourself:
- How much time do I have to devote to friends? Some hope for constant companions. Other people are happier with more time alone and prefer seeing friends at planned intervals.
- What are my boundaries? Do you want friends who feel free to call on you at all hours or stop in for unexpected visits?
- What does friendship mean to me? A writer friend once told me she has her tennis friends, her art friends, her book club friends. . . . While she may occasionally see friends outside their respective groups, her friendships are largely based on mutual interests. Her description contrasts with another friend who considers these group-related friends “associates.”
Consider what you want in a friend as well as what sort of friend you will be. Maybe you’re like my writer friend whose schedule is always full. Or perhaps you would enjoy fewer groups and a close friend or two who will respect your boundaries and need for solitude.
Friends are good for us. Those with strong social relationships are more satisfied and live longer. Cultivating a few close ties is worth the effort, so even if you’ve been hurt in the past, it’s wise to try.
Making good friends takes time. A recent study found that it takes around 50 hours for someone to go from an acquaintance to a casual friend and another 90 or more to grow even closer.
Friendship takes interest. Despite the discovery about how many hours forming good relationships can take, more than time is required to create friendships. To grow close, you need to show an interest in the other person and feel the same interest coming your way.
Making friends after estrangement: Know yourself
Are you an extrovert or an introvert? Some people are energized by a crowd and love interacting all day every day. Others feel drained by even moderate amounts of group time. Some feel enlivened in the short run but can later start to feel weary. When looking for ways to make friends, choose situations that are a fit for you.
Finding groups of like interest can foster friendships. Already having something in common with a stranger is like getting a head start. Join a meetup.com group or volunteer for a cause you believe in. If you feel good in a crowd, consider situations where you will be at your best. Maybe you volunteer somewhere with lots of social interaction and people to talk with. More of an introvert? Consider quieter situations such as working one-on-one with people who need help learning to read. Or walk pets at your local animal shelter. Then engage in small talk with other volunteers. Brief, positive interactions can set the groundwork for deeper connections.
Are you the type who will feel more at ease if you have a bit more control of your social situation? Consider starting a group yourself. Meetup.com offers both public and private settings, so you can be extra cautious about who can see your profile online. If you’re the one heading up a group, you also get to choose the purpose as well as how often and where (a public place) the group will meet.
Where I live, there’s an online community group (Nextdoor) that helps neighbors connect. I’ve seen people start hiking and book clubs, a sewing group, and even a morning dog walk. Imagine how you might fit. Maybe the security of your four-legged pal in tow is right for you, or you have a closet full of sewing supplies you could share with new friends.
Be a friend
The best way to make a friend is to be one. The old saw is as relevant today as ever. Bring treats or something from your garden to share with the team down at work. Offer to help when a moment presents itself. Just holding a door, offering to refill a coffee cup, or asking if anyone needs something from the corner store since you’re going anyway, reveal that you are kind, friendly, and interested in other people’s feelings. Maybe you’re not a witty conversationalist or need time to feel your way toward trust. Your good will, demonstrated through acts of kindness, sends a positive message and makes you a friend.
To deepen friendships, you’ll eventually need to talk about yourself. As you become more comfortable, sharing bits about your life makes others feel at ease sharing bits about their own. Disclosing information about ourselves, as it turns out, makes us more likeable. We also feel closer to those with whom we share Of course, there are limits to sharing. A friend isn’t a place to dump all our emotional trash.
Social anxiety after estrangement
Emerging from the shadow of an abusive relationship, which is true of some parents of estranged adult children, can cause social anxiety. Some parents are out of touch with their own value. They wonder where they fit and whether anyone would like them. After years of eggshell walking, careful not to state an opinion that will start a tirade, it can be difficult to converse at all. In our increasingly “social” world, it can feel as if everyone else is outgoing and has a million friends. A quieter person might wonder if they seem strange, but there must be a reason we have two ears and one mouth. A friend with a quiet nature can be a welcome change in a noisy, look-at-me world.
Worth the work
Try not to get discouraged. Just as Gingersnap had to learn which plants would sting, and which were fun to get closer to, finding companions with whom we can truly connect and trust takes time and patience. This may be especially true after complex issues such as estrangement muck up our lives and self-confidence.
Remember, friends come in all shapes and sizes. Finding good ones is worth the work. Friends can help build our confidence and lend a caring ear (or shoulder!) that can buffer stress and even boost our immunity and overall health.
Sandstrom and Dunn (July, 2014). Social Interactions and Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Holt-Lunstad et al. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk. PLoS Medicine.
Hall, Jeffrey A (2018). How many hours does it take to make a friend? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Hall, Jeffrey A., and Daniel Cochece Davis (2017). Proposing the communicate bond belong theory: Evolutionary intersections with episodic interpersonal communication. Communication Theory, 27.1: 21-47.
Collins and Miller (1994). Self-Disclosure and Liking. Psychological Bulletin.
Uchino, B.N. (2006). Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29: 377. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-006-9056-5
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