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Only the Lonely

Our 6th-grade son seems to have no real friendships. Is this normal?

A. First, relax. I want to assure you this is a normal situation for a preteen or young teen boy. In fact, this phenomenon has become substantially more common over the past decade. So breathe a sigh of relief. Your son isn't "abnormal."

But that doesn't mean his situation is healthy. This trend in the last ten years toward isolation has become one of my greatest new concerns as a youth worker for my students. And here's why. Boys by nature tend to be less expressive than girls (especially at this age). And our culture promotes "the strong, silent type" as a great male archetype. Even the U.S. Army, which ironically learned that out in the field soldiers can only succeed in teams, has advertised this notion like crazy for a few years with their "Be an Army of One" campaign.

Add to these cultural notions the fact that today's pre- and young teens have a houseful (or more likely these days, a bedroom-full) of toys intended for solo use: television, video-game systems, CD players. It's not that these things are all bad. But the fairly normal overuse of them contributes greatly to this "loner" trend.

As a result, boys in particular aren't learning the friendship skills they need to build healthy relationships. I don't think we historically thought children and teenagers needed these skills—after all, friendship just comes naturally for them! But today's 10- to 14-year-old often is so isolated in his daily life that he isn't developing the necessary relationship-building tools.

So what can you do? Here are a few ideas:

Encourage friendship groups. Often the safest place for a boy to learn about friendship is in the context of a group, not in a one-on-one friendship. Hopefully, one of the best places he'll find for this is in a healthy, active preteen or middle-school church program. I know many parents who have chosen their church based on this factor alone!

Service potential friendships. When you see any spark of a potential friendship for your son, find ways to subtly encourage it. This doesn't mean talking about his new friend nonstop (that will only lead to retreat for most boys)! Instead, offer to drive your son and his buddy somewhere; suggest fun ideas for excursions such as taking in a basketball game or going to play paintball, and make them possible. Also, make sure your home is a safe place for your son to have someone over—an environment in which he won't be embarrassed or treated like a little kid by you in front of his friends.

Encourage your son, but don't nag. When your son spends time with a friend (or potential friend), say something positive—but keep it short and sweet. Lengthy speeches will feel like pressure or nagging, and will backfire on you.

Pray like crazy! God loves your child even more than you do, and he has wired him—as he has all of us—for community. So take heart and remember that God, who knows our needs and promises to provide for them, will care tenderly for your son.

Mark Oestreicher is the president of Youth Specialties (YouthSpecialties.com), the leading provider of resources and training for Christian youth workers.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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