Relationships can be difficult for kids and teens at the best of times; but when it comes to kids who have other difficulties, such as being on the spectrum, and/or experiencing anxiety and other painful emotions, it takes things to a whole other level. Fortunately, there are things young people can do to help themselves and to make connections with others in spite of these problems. In this article I’ll share some skills from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that help people to develop and maintain relationships.
1. Look for others you share interests with: Often we can take some of the pressure off ourselves to make friends if we focus on an activity instead of on a person. Explore activities in your area that you might get involved in – sign up to play a sport or do a craft; join a club; take up a hobby that you can take some classes in. That way, you know you’ve got something in common with others, and you can focus on doing the activity together; gradually over time, you’ll usually find it becomes easier to talk to others and you’ll become more comfortable with them.
2. Name it to Tame it: When we can put a label on feeling we’re having, it actually helps to reduce the painful emotion. So noting to yourself “I’m feeling anxious”, or “I’m worried they won’t like me”, for example, will actually help you to feel soothed. This can get your brain back on-line so you can think better about what you might be able to do to help yourself be more effective in that situation.
3. Avoid avoiding! When we avoid situations, usually we just get more anxious about them, not less. Avoidance means that our brain never learns there’s nothing to actually be afraid of. Even though situations can be very intimidating, pushing ourselves to do things like talk to people, do a new activity, or even smile at someone, teaches us that usually the danger is all in our head (having said that, if someone is truly abusive or mean, please don’t stay in that situation; we don’t need bullies in our lives!)
4. Smile! Practice paying attention to the expression on your face, and when you’re approaching someone try to put a smile – even if it’s just a tiny one – on your face. Our brains contain mirror neurons that cause us to feel what others are feeling, and vice versa; that’s why when someone smiles at us, we often feel the urge to smile back. Smiling at someone can often be a nice ice-breaker, and you might be surprised at how often that simple facial expression can be the beginning of a new friendship.
5. Practice with people you’re comfortable with. When you’re trying new things, it can be helpful to get feedback from people you know, and whom you’re comfortable with. Put on a small smile and see what response you get from the people you know; try striking up a conversation about a new topic with your aunt and ask her how you did; remember, practice makes us more comfortable with new skills.
Above all else, remember that connections are truly important to our emotional as well as our physical health, so we need to make relationships a priority!
Socializing and forming friendships can be really tough even at the best of times. Here are some ideas to help when you’re dealing with anxiety or other emotions that make it more difficult for you to interact with others:
- Take the pressure off with shared interests
- Validate your feeling
- Avoid avoiding!
- Practice makes…improvements!
Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, RSW, has advanced degrees from York University and the University of Toronto and has worked for over 15 years in the mental health field.