Focus on the Family

Helping Teens Through Social Isolation

By focusing on a love-based connection, you can build trust and create a safe space for your socially isolated teen to talk about issues.

As a parent, you’ve noticed changes in your teen’s behavior and wonder what’s wrong. Your teen is showing signs of social isolation. You’re worried — and afraid — of what could happen if your teen doesn’t snap out of it. But what can you do to help? Communication between parents and teens seems difficult on a good day. Now, whatever you try just seems to make things worse.

Six months ago, she was bubbly and full of life. She spent her free time with friends, and you almost had to bribe her to spend time at home. Now she never leaves the house, gives one-word answers, and doesn’t even argue.

His teachers think he’s a disciplined student because he sits in the back of the classroom with his head in a book — but he’s not reading. He used to hang out with his friends at church; now he plays video games alone in his room.

Social Isolation is More Than Just Needing Space

What’s happening with your teen isn’t just moodiness or needing time alone to recharge. It’s called social isolation. You may have heard a lot about social isolation during COVID-19 lockdowns. But the problem is more than kids missing the chance to hang out with friends. Traumatic events, such as a breakup, bullying, an embarrassing failure, rejection, or an inability to fit in with their peer group can cause teens to deliberately disconnect and withdraw from everyone.

Isolated teens feel alone in their struggles but many don’t reach out to anyone for help — not even their friends. Instead, they think they have to figure things out on their own.

When we see our teens spiraling downward, it’s natural to scramble for solutions. Impulsively, we may try every fear-based technique we can think of, such as pleading or forcing them to reengage, using guilt or logic. Or we may try to shame them for how they’re impacting the family. You may get results with this approach, but it doesn’t lead to a genuine connection. If a fear-based approach isn’t the answer, what is?

A Path to Reconnection: Communication Between Parents and Teens

1 John 4:18 tells us, in part, “perfect love casts out fear.” If love is genuine and unconditional, it positions you as a safe person in your teen’s life. You become an ally instead of a repair person for his social isolation.

Love is the foundation of relationships and connection. A fear-based approach asks, “How can I fix my teen?” But a love-based approach asks, “How can I best love my child?” Here are some ways for demonstrating a love-based approach with your teen:

Affirm Your Unconditional Love and Support

Teens need to know how much you love and value them, and nothing they do can ever change that. So be intentional about letting your teen know that he or she is not alone and that you’ll work through issues together. My wife and I often told our teens, “We’re not going anywhere, and you can’t make us not love you.”

Focus on Active Listening

When a teen is isolating, the most important thing you can do is listen. To get your teen talking, show genuine curiosity and ask open-ended questions. When a conversation opens up, avoid shifting the focus to your own experiences or solutions.

Instead, seek to understand what your teen is thinking and feeling. Teens often feel ashamed or guilty for having negative thoughts or emotions, so let your teen know it’s normal. Don’t panic if your teen says things like “I hate my life.” Just keep listening and express your love and support.

Make Connection, Not Correction, the Goal

When our son would isolate, he became defensive and even more withdrawn if we tried correcting him or using logic to snap him out of it. Simply being present in his pain opened a door for solutions. Being present is a key element in communication between parents and teens.

By focusing on a love-based connection, you can build trust and create a safe space for your teen to talk about issues. Socially isolated teens often feel trapped and powerless, but we can restore hope by helping them identify one issue that’s important to them and exploring tiny steps toward a solution. Letting teens come up with their own solutions gives them a sense of ownership.

As you love your teen toward connection, invite God into the healing process by praying for your child daily. He loves our teens more than we do, and He knows how to reach them!

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