As parents, we want to support our teens as they work to establish meaningful friendships, yet knowing how to help can be difficult! In this article Heather Wagner shares 5 ways you can encourage and support your teen as they seek to grow in meaningful and lasting friendships.
I was nestled into a safe seat in the back of the auditorium. So far back that the only thing behind me was the exit. It was a fine spot for observation, and the best one for making a sleuth-like escape. And escaping was exactly what was on my mind. Forget the powerful content, amazing testimonies, and meaningful friendships I was told to expect from taking this class at our church. I suddenly wanted out.
But then my friend walked in and everything was fine. My anxiety rolled away, and I was okay.
On the way home, I thought about the anxiety I’d felt. Was it because this was the first in-person gathering I’d attended since the pandemic? Did my anxiousness surface because I feared vulnerability in the group discussions? I couldn’t pinpoint the root of the problem, and that bothered me.
Suddenly, I remembered watching my daughter and a group of her friends standing in a huddle comparing their class schedules before the first day of school.
“Do you have 2nd period Bio?”
“Who has Nickerson for English?”
“Someone please tell me you have ‘B’ lunch!”
And it clicked.
THE NEED FOR MEANINGFUL FRIENDSHIPS
It wasn’t just the pandemic that had me feeling unsettled. It was new people. I’d looked around at a room full of strangers and my heart rebelled against what would inevitably come next. The ice breakers. The 30-second introductions. The awkwardness that exists when a group of people are getting to know each other.
Experiencing the same fear my daughter did before the start of the school year was good for me. I’d forgotten the weight of it. As we come alongside our teenagers to help them navigate the ups and downs of friendship, it’s helpful to remember that making new friends isn’t always a cakewalk for us, either.
Leaning into that truth can help us listen to our kids from a place of humility and compassion when they come to us with questions or concerns about their relationships.
FRIENDSHIP: HOW IT STARTED AND HOW ITS GOING
During creation, God looked over the things He made and declared they were good. But after he created Adam, He knew He wasn’t finished. He saw the man He’d made in His own image and said, “It’s not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18, NIV).
We know loneliness isn’t good for anyone. Even before the pandemic, three out of five people reported feeling lonely. Kids today are struggling to find community in a world where some of the most familiar ways of growing friendships have evaporated. While some of those opportunities are starting to return, the consequences of their extended absence left many teenagers feeling lonely and disconnected.
Since we’re shaped with a need for community, that temporary lack of connection wreaked havoc on our kids’ mental health. And while we want to support our teens as they work to establish meaningful friendships, knowing how to help can be difficult to discern. Here are 5 ways you can encourage and support your teen as they seek to grow in this area.
5 WAYS TO HELP YOUR TEEN CULTIVATE MEANINGFUL FRIENDSHIPS
1. TALK TO YOUR TEEN ABOUT FRIENDSHIP
It’s Not About Me
It’s tempting to slide into these conversations with a quick fix. But oftentimes the most worthwhile conversations happen when we lead with humility.
I think it’s actually a comfort for our kids to hear their parent say:
“You’re right. I don’t know what it’s like to walk through a season like the one you’re experiencing. And I don’t have all the answers. But I do remember getting advice about life and relationships that wasn’t helpful. So I’m going to try to do better. I won’t tell you not to worry, or to just be kind, or to remember to be yourself. But I do have some wisdom, and if you’re willing to listen there are a few things I’d love for you to consider about friendship.”
This example illustrates a shift that needs to take place in our approach to conversation. When our teens sense that we’re not trying to control what they do, but to understand how they feel, sometimes their hearts open a little wider. It’s from that less guarded place that they might give us insight into how they are thinking and feeling.
Timing Is Everything
In addition to being humble, it’s also good to be patient. This is so hard, friends. When we’re invited into a conversation about friendship with our teenagers, it can be difficult to reel it in, especially when those invitations are few and far between.
Why is it so hard? Because there are few things that break a parent’s heart more than watching their children struggle with loneliness. We want our teenagers to find their people, to see them thrive within a community of friends who know them, love them, and accept them. And when that’s not happening, we want to fix it—fast.
However, I’ve found that when eagerness and fear dominate the conversation, my patience disappears. Even if my teen checked out 20 minutes into a conversation, I’m tempted to keep tossing seeds of wisdom out on the path, on the rocks, in the thorns. I stop paying attention to the condition of the soil, and I start hoping something I’ve sowed out of desperation will take root. And then I have the audacity to be shocked when nothing grows from that effort.
Asking For Help
Sometimes our teens are done listening long before we’re finished talking. And in this season of life, I’ve found myself crying out to God on more than one occasion, saying:
“Father, I believe there are no gaps in Your provision, but I don’t see You providing for my child in the friendship department. I confess that I don’t understand, and I’m trying to trust You.
I know that while I’m trying to read between the lines of my teen’s behavior, body language, and communication, there is nothing hidden from Your sight. You know what he needs to hear and when he needs to hear it. Help me know when to speak and when to stop speaking. Give me wisdom, Lord, and open a door for meaningful conversations with my teen about friendship. Even though this hurts, we wait in hopeful expectation for You to do immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine.”
2. HELP THEM UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENT LEVELS OF FRIENDSHIP
If your teen comes to you with a situation concerning a friend, start by asking them how close they are to the person involved. This open-ended question creates space for your teen to unpack that relationship while you listen. If they don’t have the language to communicate how close they are to an individual, it’s a great time to talk about the different levels of friendship.
Today, many researchers suggest there are 4-5 levels of friendship: Strangers, Acquaintances, Casual Friends, Close Friends, and an Inner Circle. These labels can help our kids articulate what can be difficult to define about a friendship.
Even if no one explained to us as teenagers that there were differences between an acquaintance, a casual friend, and a close friend, we knew those lines existed. Maybe you had a best friend, a best-best friend, and a best-friend-forever. Maybe your friends asked you if you liked a guy or like-liked a guy. That was us trying to figure out where we stood, how we fit, and what we might expect from others.
3. GIVE THEM GUIDANCE IN THE ‘BLURRY LINES’
For teens today, the lines between the different levels of friendship are harder to distinguish. Social media has given our kids’ acquaintances and casual friends access to information that in the past was only available to those in their inner circle. This meshing can create a comforting but superficial sense of connection.
Having an understanding of the levels of friendship can help our teens examine their friendships to see where they might stand and consider which direction those relationships may be shifting.
This matters because the type of information we share with an acquaintance is entirely different from what we might safely share with someone in our inner circle. Understanding the ‘blurry lines’ can help our teens be realistic about what they might expect from different types of friends, and to know what those friends may be expecting from them. Since we want our teenagers to guard their hearts but not build a wall around them, using this franework to guide them can help them navigate their friendships with wisdom and safety.
4. PRACTICE HOSPITALITY
Making your home a space where your kids’ friends feel welcome matters. I’m so thankful for people who practice a lifestyle of hospitality. For some of us, it doesn’t come naturally. And that’s okay. Maybe that’s why it’s called practicing hospitality.
Sometimes we want to bow out of hosting our kids’ friends because we don’t have enough beds or we don’t know how to cook for that many people. We’ll say no because we don’t know all the teens’ parents or we’re worried they’ll be bored at our house. But here’s what I’ve learned: like all of us, teens just want to be where they are welcomed and wanted.
So instead of worrying over what we don’t have, let’s consider how we might use the resources we do have to bless our kids’ friends.
Though providing space for your teen to invest in developing meaningful friendships isn’t always convenient, God uses the time they spend inside your home to do more than you realize. Over time, you may see casual friends become close friends and close friends become like family. Before you realize, you might even become a trusted voice in the life of another teen who needed a caring adult to speak encouragement into their hearts.
5. ENCOURAGE THEM THAT IT WILL GET BETTER
Making new friends is hard. Though most of us would prefer to dive directly into a well-established relationship, lasting friendships aren’t made that way. But instead of running for the exits or accepting superficial substitutes for the real thing, we can encourage our teens to lean into the awkward parts of making new friends. We can support them by keeping our conversations open, by practicing hospitality, and by modeling what it looks like to be a good friend.
And while we’re waiting for our teens to find their people, we can stand with them in loneliness. We can help them bear the hurt, saying:
“I’m here. When you’re rejected, you’re wanted here. And when you’re feeling lonely, you can find connection here. When you don’t know who you are, we will remind you, here.”
And then, we’ll love them through the lonely, pointing them toward their Father in Heaven who does the same.
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