“I don’t have any friends!”
Does that sound familiar? If your teenagers are like so many I’ve worked with, they probably struggle with relationships. A couple of factors contribute to this struggle. First, many teens spend inordinate amounts of time on social media, and one of the side effects is that they often neglect real-world relationships. One study found that teens who frequently use social media — and have a lot of online “friends” — report feeling more lonely than peers who have less of an online life.
Another reason teens may struggle in friendships is their “nearsightedness.” Most adolescents are very aware of how others treat them, but not so aware of how they are treating or judging others. These sorts of blind spots can have a major impact on a teen’s ability to develop lasting friendships.
What can we do to set them up for better, deeper, more loyal friendships through their teenage years? Try the following:
Help them know who to choose as a friend
Although teens often complain they have no friends, that complaint often comes from a flawed perspective. It’s not that teens don’t have friends; they just don’t have the friends they would like. Many teens want relationships with the cool kids, often minimizing the positive friendships they already have.
As parents, we can help direct our teens to not overlook the potential friends who might be right in front of them. The friendships our teens already have may be valuable, so perhaps they need to learn how to deepen those friendships rather than longing for “better” friends.
If your teen has friends but expresses unhappiness with them, find out what is driving those feelings. What is it about these friends that your teen doesn’t feel is good enough? Ask your teen what she believes makes a good friend and who she would like to know better. These questions just might uncover personal values and perspectives that need to be lovingly redirected.
Help them know how to make a friend
Teenagers often want to connect with someone, but they have no idea how to approach that person or what to talk about.
Teach your kids that listening is an important way to show people that we’re interested in them. It helps us learn — and we learn best by asking questions. Help your teens to come up with some questions they can ask at the lunch table, at youth group or whenever they’re trying to connect with someone. These questions can be as simple as “What did you think about that homework?” or “What did you do this weekend?”
It can be helpful to role-play conversations, practicing ways to connect with people. Challenge your teens to reach out to at least one person a day. I often tell teenagers that many of their peers feel just like they do: They want to make friends and are waiting for someone to approach them. If everyone waits, no one connects.
Remind your teens that developing friendships takes time. It takes multiple attempts and invitations to a new friend to develop something deeper.
Help them know how to keep a friend
In their nearsightedness, teenagers are often profoundly unaware of dynamics that affect relationships. Without realizing it, they talk too long about themselves or about things that other kids aren’t interested in.
The dinner table can be a great time to practice reciprocity. Relationships are back and forth — in big ways and small ways. I speak and you listen. Then you speak, and I listen. I invite you to hang out. You invite me back. In teaching teenagers reciprocity, we’re setting them up for success in their future relationships as friends, co-workers, spouses and parents.
To further strengthen their relationship skills, ask your teens questions that get them thinking more about the other person. “What do you think would help in that situation with your friend?” “What do you believe is the right thing to do?” “How could you be compassionate to your friend?”
Model positive friendships
Teenagers need their parents to teach them what good friendship looks like. Their friendships, ultimately, are patterned after their relationship with us and what they learn from our friendships with others. As we’re teaching our teens foundational skills, let’s also remember how important it is for us to model our own healthy relationships. Young people need to see what good conversation, strong questions and the ability to listen look like. How you make friends — and how you nurture your friendships — may be the best lesson your teens learn.