He didn’t have any friends. Literally, zero. So last week, he tried to impress a few potential buddies through a risky decision at school. Fortunately, it only cost him a 10-day suspension.
This week, he’s suffering the consequences…and still alone.
The Need for Friends
“Nick” attends the middle school Christian club where I speak every Tuesday. He’s also a member of my church. His younger brother is my son’s best friend. But Nick doesn’t have a best friend. Actually, he doesn’t have any friends.
Determined to change that, on Thursday morning of last week he snuck an OTC medication onto campus and tried to make Lean. Instead of impressing his peers, the honor-roll student was caught and suspended.
It was a wakeup call for his family…and me.
In the aftermath of counseling and consoling his family, I learned from a multi-decade long study that Nick isn’t the only one who struggles; the number of close friends Americans have is shrinking. Here are just a few of the revelations:
- Most Americans have only two close friends…down from three in years past.
- People who have no one to discuss serious matters with increased to nearly 25%.
- The number of people with zero confidantes tripled between 1985 and 2004.
In spite of those stats, many kids don’t usually have a lot of trouble making (and interacting with) friends…but they’re doing it digitally. Unsurprisingly, they’re connecting via social media, and according to one report, the average teenager has about 425 “friends” on Facebook. But all of us know that a Facebook friend and a flesh-and-blood friend are two very different things.
We need friends in the real world – not just the online world. And when we don’t have them, we suffer. The negative impacts of loneliness have been well-documented for some time, and researchers at Harvard even think friendlessness could be as unhealthy as smoking.
Dr. Robin Dunbar says that everyone needs between 3 and 5 vital friendships. The Oxford psychologist goes on to say that many of us have between 100 and 200 people in our social circle, but it’s that handful of close companions that have such a profoundly positive effect on us.
As adults, one of the biggest responsibilities we have is helping young people manage their relationships. Problems happen when they have no friends…or the wrong friends. Here are some questions parents and youth workers can ask themselves to make sure their teens aren’t alone.
- Do my kids talk about their friends during dinner, car rides, or hang out times?
- Do my kids have friends over to our house on a regular basis?
- Do my kids ask to spend time with other kids their age?
- Do I know who my kids’ biggest peer influencers are?
- Do I know which “friends” are healthy…and which ones aren’t?
- What can I do to help my kid foster strong relationships with great peers?
I get it, mom and dad. There are jobs to work, bills to pay, events to attend, and chores to do. But we can’t let our own kids fall through the cracks of busyness. Ensure they have healthy relationships with awesome friends!
If they don’t have any social circle, then encourage them to get involved in social venues like church, sports and school clubs. If they don’t want to do any of these things when they’re young, it’s okay to “insist.” This doesn’t mean forcing them to play football if they don’t like sports. Simply give them a list of suggestions of healthy activities from sports to art– social venues in an area of their interest—and have them pick one. I’ve seen plenty of families whose kids didn’t want to do anything but stay home and play video games. Loving nudges to get involved in youth group, mission trips, sports or other positive social venues almost always turned out to be a positive experience.
- Are any of my students alone or “in a corner” during youth group gatherings?
- Are there kids in my group who always seem to be alone with just their smartphone?
- When on campus, do I see my students encircled by others…or sitting by themselves?
- Has anyone recently disappeared from our youth group?
- Does our “programming” encourage relationship-building?
- Do I know who each of my students’ BFF is?
- Which of my students need help forging relationships? What can I do to offer that help?
Again, youth workers, I get it. Staff meetings, special events, and weekly programming sometimes blind us to the trees in the forest. Just remember, we teach about a God who said it was “not good” for us to be alone (Gen. 2:18). And that same God, when He came to Earth, had friends and even “appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with Him” (Mark 3:14). Jesus was all about connecting. It was at the forefront of his ministry. Connecting with studentsshould be at the forefront of ours.
We can not only connect with kids, but create venues where kids get connected with others. Small groups are an amazing tool to help kids connect with one another each week and slowly form friendships.
Are you creating venues of connection?
I gotta run. A basketball game is about to start on the courts at my church. Nick will be there…along with a few other young men I’ve invited.
David R. Smith
David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.