I can remember being in social situations where, even though there were a lot of people around, I felt very alone. Have you ever felt like this? Like everyone else in the room or at an event has strong connections and you are kind of just there, on the outskirts, looking in with no real friends? This can feel very lonely and can cause sadness and even fear. Now, imagine being a teenager who is already so insecure and unsure of themselves and unclear about where they fit into the world and how this type of situation must feel for them.
As human beings, we all want connection. We all want to be part of something larger than us and to feel like we belong and that we are important. Unfortunately for teens, this desire can cause them a lot of insecurity and pain. Let’s face it, teenagers can be mean and hurtful at times. They can work hard to make someone feel excluded and like they don’t belong (which they are likely doing to address their own insecurities) which can result in strong feelings of isolation. The danger in this is that often times these teens, who feel excluded, will seek out that connection anywhere they can get it because they want so desperately to belong and fit in with others.
I have worked with many teens who are heavily gang involved and who became involved for this very reason. Maybe they did not fit in at school because they did not do well academically, maybe they felt afraid in their neighborhoods and wanted people who could help protect them, maybe they never felt connected to their family, maybe nobody ever reinforced their talents or encouraged them to get involved in sports, music, drama or any other activities so that this was all they knew. I have also worked with many teenage girls who become very promiscuous because they feel that this is a way of connecting with others and feeling cared about. The reality is that others are taking advantage of these girls for their own personal gratification and they do not have any emotional connection at all which leaves these girls feeling even more lonely, abandoned and ashamed. Similarly, this is how teenagers can become involved in illegal behavior, drug use, skipping school or other at-risk behaviors. They want to be part of something and if they do not feel accepted by others, they will seek out those who will accept them. Typically teenagers engaged in at-risk behaviors like company and are accepting of anyone who will participate in what they are doing and who will take risks with them.
What is difficult for teenagers is that once they fall in with a negative group, they can be “labeled” and it actually makes it more difficult for them to connect with positive social groups due to this labeling as well as their own shame for what they may have done.
As a parent, what can you do to help make sure you teen is getting their need for connecting fulfilled in a positive manner?
- Know who your teenager spends their time with – who are their friends, who do they text, Facebook and talk to on the phone
- Point out your teenagers strengths – make sure you tell them what they are good at, that you admire their talents and that they are important
- Give your teen access to various ways of connecting – these do not need to be things that cost a lot of money. Look for events, groups and organizations through churches, town recreation centers, school, local youth groups or just get together with some of your friends and their teens
- Have other adults give your teen positive praise and attention – this is especially important if you have a teen who is not strong academically because they may not get a lot of this in school. Have other relatives, friends or neighbors point out your teen’s strengths, encourage them and be curious about them in a sincere manner
- Make them feel connected to your family – even if they act like they don’t care. Ask for their opinion about things, include them in the decision-making when possible, tell them you love them and that you are proud of them, make an effort to be around them (and if they reject this – don’t take it personally)
- Open up the dialogue – even if your teenager says they don’t want to talk about it, check in with them, ask them how they are feeling, tell them if you see that they are looking sad, let them know you are there for them to talk or help
As you know, this can be a difficult period but having a good connection with one or two positive individuals can make such an important impact in the life of a teenager. Anything you can do, as the parent of a teenager, to foster or provide opportunities for these connections will make a difference for your teen.