“Nick” belongs to my church and attends the middle school Christian club where I speak every Tuesday. His younger brother is my son’s best friend. But Nick doesn’t have a best friend; in fact, he doesn’t have any friends.
Determined to change that, this honor-roll student recently snuck an over-the-counter medicine onto campus and tried to make the concoction known as Lean. Instead of impressing his peers, Nick was caught and suspended for 10 days. It was a wake-up call for his family…and for me.
Why We Need Friends
In the aftermath of counseling and consoling Nick and his family, I learned from a decades-long study that his struggles aren’t uncommon. Among Americans, our number of close friends is shrinking. Here are some of the findings:
- Most people have only two close friends (down from three in years past).
- Nearly 25 percent of people have no one to discuss a serious issue with.
- Between 1985 and 2004, the number of people with zero confidants tripled.
Despite these stats, most teenagers usually don’t have trouble making (and interacting with) friends…but they’re doing so digitally. Not surprisingly, kids are connecting via social media. Although the average teenager has several hundred online friends, these are very different from flesh-and-blood BFFs.
People need friends in the real world, not just online. When we don’t have friends, we suffer. The negative impacts of loneliness are well-documented, and Harvard researchers even think friendlessness can be as unhealthy as smoking.
Everyone needs between three and five vital friendships, according to Oxford psychologist Robin Dunbar. Although many of us have between 100 and 200 people in our social circle, just a handful of close companions have a profound effect on us.
This week on the Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus Podcast, Partnering with Jesus to Set People Free
How to Make Connections
When young people have no friends, or the wrong friends, trouble follows them. So as parents and youth workers, one of our biggest responsibilities is helping teenagers make and sustain close relationships. Ask yourself these questions to make sure your teenagers aren’t alone.
- Do my kids talk about their friends during dinner, car rides, or hangout times?
- Do my kids regularly have friends over to our house?
- Do my kids ask to spend time with others their age?
- Do I know who my kids’ biggest peer influencers are?
- Do I know which peers are healthy influences and which aren’t?
- How can I help my teenagers foster strong relationships with positive peers?
I get it, Mom and Dad. You have jobs, bills, responsibilities, and chores. But we can’t let our own teenagers fall through the cracks of busyness.
If your teenagers don’t have a social circle, encourage them to get involved in church and youth group activities, school clubs, and sports. If they don’t want to do any of these things when they’re younger, it’s okay to “insist.” This doesn’t mean forcing a non-athletic kid to play football. Simply provide a list of healthy activities in their areas of interest—anything from art to nature—and have your kids pick one or two. Don’t let them just stay home and play video games. Instead, ensure they develop healthy relationships by offering loving nudges to get involved.
- During youth group gatherings, do you notice any teenagers alone or in a corner?
- Do you notice kids who seem to create alone space using their smartphone?
- On the school campus, do I see my students surrounded by others or sitting by themselves?
- Has anyone recently stopped coming to our youth group?
- Does our programming encourage relationship-building?
- Do I know the BFF of each teenager?
- Who needs help forging relationships? What can I do to assist or facilitate?
Again, youth workers, I get it. Staff meetings, special events, and weekly programming can blind us to the trees in the forest. Remember, we teach about a God who said it wasn’t good for people to be alone (Genesis 2:18). And that same God, Jesus incarnate, had many friends and even appointed 12 apostles to be near him (Mark 3:14). Jesus was all about connecting. It was at the forefront of his ministry. Connecting with students is at the forefront of our mission in life, too.
We also can create venues where teenagers connect with one another. Small groups are amazing ways to foster friendships. How are you creating opportunities for connection? One way that you can do this is by really paying attention to teenagers. This week on Whiteboard Wednesday we’ll do a live experience with youth going beyond the surface to really get at the heart.
I gotta run. A basketball game is about to start on our church’s courts. Nick will be there…along with a few other guys I invited.