A few years ago, I was at a talk for primary schoolteachers about the socialisation of children. The lady presenting asked every teacher to do her a big favour.
Every Friday they were to ask their class to write down the three children that they would most like to sit beside the following week.
When the kids had gone home, they were asked to spend a minute or two reviewing the lists. However, they were not looking for the kids that were on everybody’s list. What they were really looking for were the children that were on nobody’s list.
The Columbine school massacre was one of the first mass shootings in the US
I sat there glued to the seat. Such a simple tool, yet one that I professionally knew could transform lives. After her presentation, I approached her and asked her where she had got the idea to do this. “After Columbine” was her simple answer.
The Columbine school massacre was one of the first mass shootings in the US. This wonderful woman had correctly figured out that incidents like this don’t just happen on a whim, but are a conclusion to events that start years earlier.
Events where children become more and more isolated as a result of not having the skills needed to become part of a group. As a result, they spend their lives looking at life through an imaginary barrier that they can’t break through.
Thankfully, we have not had a school shooting here in Ireland but the dynamics that result in children feeling terminally unique are the same. Look at every school and community and you will find children that just don’t know how to fit in. For whatever reason they are excluded, never picked for the team. Always on the side lines of childhood life.
Whether it is a football team or a school project, children bond by finding a sense of identity with each other
Learning how to make friends is a skill. The cement that bonds kids together is the commonality that they feel when they are with each other. Whether it is a football team or a school project, children bond by finding a sense of identity with each other.
No shared commonality?
So, what if because of your differences, you don’t have that commonality. How do you identify and therefore bond? You can’t.
Imagine that you are the only woman in an all-male world, (or vice versa). The world is passionate about football. Everybody plays football so you should too. You can’t understand what all the fuss is about, you just prefer tennis.
However, because you don’t feel as passionate as everyone else, you are made to believe that there must be something wrong with you.
When children can’t understand the unwritten behaviour “language” of their peers, they are eventually rejected out of society
What do you do? You pretend to like football at the start. You go to matches, but the harder you try, the more abnormal you feel. You eventually give up and withdraw back into the isolated world that you do understand.
When children can’t understand the unwritten behaviour “language” of their peers, they are eventually rejected out of society. This exclusion process often goes unnoticed because it occurs gradually. The lack of social skills is seen as a deficit in the child, so there is nothing the community can do. Right?
We are naturally attracted to people we identify with. This identification must be learned early in life. But understanding works both ways. Boys and girls, black and white, republican and loyalist need to understand each other before they can bond. Expecting one side to do all the understanding leads to misogyny, racism and sectarianism.
We all need to understand that everyone is different. It can’t always be one sided. Life is not a mutual admiration society. We can’t expect everyone to like us or want to be our friend. But through understanding we can nurture inclusion, and it is this that fosters attachment and community.
Why we need friends is determined by whatever stage we are at in life. Children need friends to learn how life works and where they fit in. Teens view themselves by how they appear to others, so they need friends for security and to help themselves develop their own unique identity.
Our 20s are all about partnership. Between the ages of 30 and 50, we look for friends that support us with common goals.
Friends in later life help us assess our life and support us as we lose other people and supports in our lives. So, our friendships will be determined by our gender, age and need.
Many people believe that making friendships should be automatic rather than a skill that needs to be learned
Women communicate face to face; men communicate shoulder to shoulder. Therefore, women will tend to seek one-on-one connections whereas men will tend towards teams etc.
Many people believe that making friendships should be automatic rather than a skill that needs to be learned. If you struggle to make friends, you will believe that there must be something wrong with you.
Even if we had friends when we were young, we can find ourselves in a new situation or stage of life where we suddenly find ourselves struggling to make or maintain friendships, leaving us isolated, lonely, and vulnerable.
As a result, many people find it hard to reach out for help, especially men. By not being open about how difficult it can be, we are implying that everyone else knows how to do it automatically.
This is a major factor in loneliness and prevents us reaching out, afraid that people will look under the rug and see what I think is the real me.
Going from social chat to friendship has a lot more to do with opening our ears than our mouth.
Chatting is our first chance to influence people’s opinion of us. Whilst chatting is usually superficial, by listening we make the other person feel that we are interested in what they have to say. They feel understood and as such will like us more and want to let us closer to them.
Asking questions allows us to understand someone more and demonstrates that we care about what they think. We all like talking about ourselves and to do so we need someone to ask us what we think.
Interestingly, they will know less about you but will still like you more because you have filled a need in them. By filling their need, the people who you want to be friends with, will be more open to listening and being supportive of you.
Practice maintaining eye contact. Avoid staring by looking away occasionally. Eye contact allows us to connect with the other person without touching. The more eye contact we give them, the more they pay attention to us.
Respect the other person’s viewpoint. You don’t have to agree with it, but you accept their right to their own opinion. Regard it as being no crazier than your own.
As our connection with the other person grows, showing affection and concern grows naturally. Empathy is the art of understanding where the other person is. We all have it, but it needs to be practiced.
Underneath the superficial differences between us, we are all just ordinary people coping the best we can with the tools we have. Realising this allows us to find our own tribe, bonding at a far deeper level than just superficial chit chat.
Enda Murphy is a cognitive behavioural therapist and director of Seeme. For more details go to www.seeme.ie. Please email your own queries for Enda to firstname.lastname@example.org