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Ask me anything: 'I'm worried I won't make friends with school mums'

Our resident psychologist Allison Keating answers your queries about life and relationships


Allison Keating

Allison Keating

Allison Keating

Question: I am a confident woman in my 40s with a good marriage and a good career. I have many good long-time friendships. However, with new people, I feel like I always say the wrong thing. I am very direct, and I like to ask questions. I hate small talk. I am more of a one-on-one person than a group person. My daughter started school in September and I have been for a few coffees with some of the mums, but as soon as I leave I worry about every word I have said. I worry that I might have dominated the conversation. Also, I worry an awful lot about whether or not these women like me. I feel like I am back in school myself! Why have I this anxiety all of a sudden and what can I do about it?

Answer: It is quite common for the start of school to be nearly harder on you, than on your child. It's like going back to school except you are left to fend for yourself. The teacher will encourage inclusion in the classroom and keep an eye on anyone being left out. The school gate can be a lonely place where you are not sure of your own footing. In a nutshell, it's starting something completely new, and that can bring its own fears and worries.

The irony of being an adult is that within your competence and being confident, having a good marriage and career, is that you can forget the uncomfortableness and social awkwardness of making new friends. New friendships require time and effort and these are two major luxuries that are often in exceptionally short supply to parents.

You know what you are doing at work, you feel competent and experienced. You know your husband loves you, and you trust him. You feel comfortable and safe with your friends but at one stage these people were all new to you. So being the newbie is a trigger to worry as you are aware that you might make a social blunder as you don't know the boundaries or even their sense of humour yet, and there can also be parenting politics. So, it's not that straightforward; welcome the social awkwardness and reach out and connect with one person who you'd like to be friends with.

The joy inherent in a great relationship is that you know each other and where the line of appropriateness is and like any good comedian you can push the line as far as you know your audience. The same is true here.

However, your intent obviously isn't to make mistakes but to find people you would like to hang out with even if you didn't have kids in the same year or class. If you make a mistake just say sorry. Worry about it, when or if, it happens. It's like short-cutting the worry from 'what if' to 'what do I need to do now' to help any situation.

One of the characteristics of making friends comes down to the equation of frequency of interactions and opportunities and while these factors may be present, they still may not be people you would have chosen to be friends with. Circumstantial friends may just stay at acquaintance level and that can be ok. Don't put yourself under pressure to make friends, take your time, find your fellow comedians.

How about changing the worry into a practical challenge? Be kind and listen to your worries then ask and write out what you are specifically worried about. Note the subsequent emotions that come from these thoughts. Where are the scenarios you are running in your head coming from; do you feel uneasy when you leave? I do think you should listen to your instinct and question strong reactions to feelings as feelings aren't always facts. Gut reactions are important, as well though, to note to help you find people you will and won't mesh with.

Has anything in the past triggered these feelings? Is this the first time in some years that you are in the new territory of making new friends? How did you get on with friendships or socially in school? Were there any situations that occurred that made you feel uncomfortable or disliked, or was there any bullying and or exclusion? Did anyone ever say to you that you said the wrong thing or that you were 'too direct?'

If you can identify similarities it may point to where this worry originated and then took root. Don't judge or minimise it even if it was years ago. Past unmet needs and wounds will always pick up on uneasy social cues as you can be hyper-vigilant to ensure you won't be left out of the group. Or you may feel some anxiety over this being uncharted territory.

Some mums can already have formed groups and it may feel uncomfortable as you start to get to know them. Welcome in the uncomfortableness and take some risks where you feel appropriate. Give yourself credit for attempting to grow through how you are feeling. You would encourage your child's effort so give yourself the same kudos.

How you are feeling is very common and it can also be normal to be confident at work and happy at home but to feel somewhat at a loss in new situations like this. One conversation at a time; see the strengths in your qualities in that you value meaningful relationships that are authentic. These are wonderful friendship qualities; you won't attract gossipy or two-faced people but this is a good thing.

If you have a query for this page, email Allison at allisonk@independent.ie

Irish Independent