Friendless teens

I normally use the word adolescence when writing about the transition stage from child to adult because it often starts before one turns 13 and it definitely extends beyond 19, often into the mid 20s. However, the teen years are especially vulnerable years in terms of building social connections that are life-enhancing.

One of the main biological drivers of adolescence is the urge to belong with one’s peers or to create friendship circles outside of the family. This involves stepping back from parents as they build their autonomy and independence so that when their pre frontal cortex is complete and their executive functioning part of the brain that makes mature choices is complete, they become an adult (Well that’s the theory).

The social dynamics of the adolescent world are fraught with challenge and delight. We know that stable, reliable friendships will support an adolescent during their ride to adulthood. It is a major protective factor in terms of resilience. Friendships help develop social skills, modify the dark moods of adolescence and enhance moral development.

Through friendships, adolescents learn unspoken codes of conduct that they will take with them throughout life.

This does not mean all friendships are plain sailing. Being sanctioned by your peers is one of the fastest ways to create the catalyst for an adolescent to change an unhelpful behaviour or uncaring communication. Friendships can make or break an adolescent in many ways.

Positive friendships are a powerful, protective factor that can help adolescents avoid unlawful or risky behaviour. Negative friendships can do the reverse and can lead teens into delinquent or risky behaviour. It can be hurtful when your teen no longer wants to go on family outings because he or she would prefer to hang out with friends. However, it is a sign of healthy adolescent development as they unknowingly prepare their own future tribes.

There can be enormous volatility in friendship links between 12 and 15 years of age. Many parents have stories about the cruelty of certain friends and the devastating impact they had on their growing adolescent. Teens are particularly sensitive to the barbs and wounds of friendship conflict. Girls can be particularly brutal. When friends spread malicious lies that destroy reputations the damage can be fatal, demonstrated by the suicides of those who have been cyber-bullied.

We learn the value of friendship many times in our journey through life. True friendship is knowing you are never alone, and that right beside you is someone you can lean on, talk to and cry with. It’s also about knowing that there is someone to share the joy, laughter and achievements with. Even more importantly friends can help when life gets tough and when bad or sad things happen.

Friendship means everything to a teen. To be socially and personally acceptable they need to be seen to have friends. The biological urge to belong is so strong that adolescents will do anything to be part of the crowd. They can easily take up with a group engaging in risky or criminal behaviour, and many have come off the rails in such circumstances. Nothing is as threatening in the social network of adolescents as the loner. Being a loner occasionally is not unusual, but it is developmentally unhealthy to be alone all the time and to avoid hanging out with a friend.

So how can parents help if they have a teen who has no friends?

In my time counselling troubled teens I found that many teens who struggled to have friends had been scarred in childhood, many had been bullied over often quite benign things like their name, the colour of their hair, being too tall, short, too skinny or too fat. This early bullying often creates a powerful negative inner critic voice that is shame-based and which, by the teen years, dominates all their thinking and colours their view of the world making them feel useless or worthless.

Many of them have had their trust broken in past friendships and they are frightened of being hurt again and so often unconsciously avoid building new friendships. Learning to trust is an important part of friendship. If their trust is shattered again, they will struggle in their adult years to overcome the powerful belief that no one can be trusted. It is very difficult to form a deep, long-term, intimate relationship without being able to trust. Parents and educators have a responsibility to let our emerging adults know that betrayal of trust can cause deeper damage than they realise.

The inability to see social threats objectively can lead to poor decision-making during friendship squabbles. To be ostracised is a serious threat to a teen’s survival and they will fight to prevent that happening. The effects of social rejection can last for life. Bullying and physical violence has increased in our schools and communities partly because of the decreased emotional literacy, the increased stress levels, less resilience and desensitisation to violence from the screen obsession of many adolescents.

Positive friendships that are formed during primary school need to be preserved if possible. The impact of moving an adolescent from a long-term location needs to be considered very carefully because such an experience of social dislocation can feel like death to them. When they arrive in a new community it’s hard to break into existing friendship groups. Unless the adolescent has some obvious attraction (like-minded interests) like being competent at sport, music or academically, this can be a difficult transition. If you have adolescents aged between 12 and 17, then please consider very carefully before relocating your family. At this age adolescents are most at risk of suffering from losing the protective net of established friends. The grief they feel can easily turn into deep resentment and anger towards their parents for ruining their life’.

To be able to build a new friendship a teen needs to have the negative or limiting mindset changed or altered. No amount of rational talking can do this. Until they feel better about themselves – that they are worthy of being liked, accepted and valued they will simply sabotage most overt attempts.

To change this inhibitive mindset here are some suggestions:

  1. Find something that ignites the inner spark in your teen – no matter what it is! It can be something unexpected like growing flowers, herbs or chillies – maybe breeding guinea pigs, rabbits or chooks; maybe cooking wood-fired pizzas, home-made bread or ice-cream; making short movies, writing songs or painting and building things – cubbies, wrought iron things, wood boxes; maybe rowing, cross country running or environmental warrior things.
  2. Find some form of service for them to do – helping at an aged care facility, recycling place, animal refuge or a charity. Helping others ALWAYS make an individual feel better about themselves
  3. Use creative visualisation to help re-wire the mindset – the best ones I have created are Accepting Myself, Flight Fantasy, Relax and Escape or Dare to Dream. They simply listen to the same track 3-4 times a week on their device.
  4. Make an appointment to see their Year Leader/Facilitator – or a teacher your child likes – at your secondary school so that they are aware of your concerns.
  5. Keep an eye out for new students who come to school or to your community and make them feel welcome.
  6. Encourage making friends with different ages.
  7. Keep trying to get them to join clubs and social happenings that they have an interest in – when their self-esteem improves, they may just be brave enough to take that step.
  8. Work hard to keep your relationship warm and caring as parent support is enormous!
  9. Find a lighthouse to be an adult ally in their life, they can often do more social engineering than mums and dads.
  10. Help them find an online friend or circle of friends (however advise them about how to do this safely.) When social media is a positive experience it can help lonely teens feel connected however if it is toxic and destructive it can make things much worse. Online games (when played moderately) can be a good way for kids to build wellbeing – especially when played with others, according to research out of Queensland University of Technology. The research says playing games with others increases a person’s brain activity, improves their social wellbeing and helps them feel more connected with others. Again, though, remember this is in moderate doses.
  11. Headspace is a great place to go to seek help and resources.
  12. If they will see someone professionally, make sure it’s someone who is known to be great with teens whether it’s a counsellor, chaplain, psychologist, social worker, youth worker, NLP practitioner or a kinesiologist. Teens often only give these people one chance to make a difference – then if they don’t feel it was helpful, they may not want seek professional help again.
  13. If you notice a change in your teen’s behaviour that worries you, take action! Go to your local doctor or again check out Headspace if you are concerned that your teen has become depressed.

Some signs to be concerned about

  • Depressed mood (feeling sad or low).
  • Loss of interest or pleasure (in activities you normally enjoy).
  • Significant appetite or weight loss or gain.
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too little or too much).
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation (being restless and jittery, or alternatively, slower than usual).
  • Fatigue or loss of energy.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt.
  • Impaired thinking or concentration; indecisiveness.
  • Suicidal thoughts/thoughts of death.

– From the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders, 4th ed. (DSM-IV)

Friendship is one of the most wonderful rewards in this journey of life, and the experiences our young adults in transition have can set them down the road to the beautiful sunrise or down the road to the long dark night. Friends can offer care and support to each other which can give them the strength and courage to deal with each and every challenge that life has to offer, positively.


Side by side

Don’t walk in front of me

I may not follow;

Don’t walk behind me

I may not lead;

Walk beside me

And just be my friend.

–– Albert Camus.