Advice to a teenager: how do I help my friend not mess up her life?

I often get asked to write on relationship advice for the team at fervr.net and this question came through last week.

Question: “I have a friend who is really against God. We were friends for a long time until she became very depressed over a boy. She started cutting her wrists with anything she could find. I eventually told the teacher and my parents who thus then took the things away. Her self esteem is lost and she follows anyone who will be nice to her. Good or bad. I've become friends with her and I've noticed how often she wants to fit in. She wears her hair the same as me, dresses the same, even acts the same! I've tried giving her your devotions about how people are beautiful on the inside but her self confidence is still zero. I've complimented her talents but yet even them are very hidden. She knows about God. She knows practically everything about him yet she won't do anything. I just want her to be an individual again, because if she doesn't then she could end up with the wrong crowd and mess up her life. Please help me! I'm 15 and I need the best advice I can get.”

Answer: Firstly, it's really wonderful that you are concerned about your friend. You obviously love her a lot. You are also very perceptive about the way she's trying to fit in with anyone who will be nice to her and what that might mean for her in the future.

Obviously your friend is hungry for love and acceptance and will do anything to get it. She also appears to be very angry, both with herself and with God. Her relationships are clearly dysfunctional as a result.  If she could understand that God loves her deeply, it would be life changing for her.

For someone looking from the outside it seems so simple. "Just believe in God. Just know he loves you," we desperately say. "Come on! Sort yourself out!" Sometimes we feel like banging our heads against a brick wall because it's so obvious to us what the solution is. It's frustrating.

What might help you is to know that I think that there is more than likely much more going on in your friend's life then you are aware of.

People build patterns of poor relationships because of what they have learned as a child about how to relate. Some patterns seem to be compulsive – people get stuck in them - and it seems like they can never extricate themselves from their bad decisions.

I'm guessing that your friend is struggling with a dysfunctional family background, possibly with abuse of some kind, with shame-based or perfectionistic parenting or other issues brought about by family dynamics. These are things that run deep.

The older I get, the more I realise that we are fragile creatures and less in control of our lives than we think. We create patterns of relating to people that become automatic. We might know what we're doing (although often we don't even understand that) but we don't have any idea why. Until we can recognise the 'what' for ourselves and get help to sort out the 'why' it's incredibly difficult to change.

The best advice I can give to you right now is to say that you probably won't be able to help her as much as you would like to. Certainly, you can give her some verses and thoughts and point her in a great direction, but in the end any changes she makes will have to come from her.

The challenge you will face will be to love her despite her flaws and bad decisions at this time. I often go back and reread one Corinthians 13 – love is kind, patient, persistent, never giving up and all the rest.

Pray for her regularly. Make time for her and with her, and have fun. Do stuff that you both enjoy. Keep it light and follow her lead as to how seriously she wants to talk. For people who've been hurt at deep levels, trust is built slowly. Be kind. Make sure you are generous, positive and a person who is good to be around. Don't expect her to give back to you what you give to her, but don't treat her as an 'improvement project' either. Are you genuinely interested in who she is as a person? If so, you'll build a real relationship.

Everyone knows when someone has an agenda. If your agenda is that you have to 'fix' your friend, she'll know and she'll resist it. I would! I can sniff out people who are not really my friends. If you have no agenda, but you just want to love your friend freely – as God loves us – your friend will know that too. And she'll remember it at the point that she's ready to make the changes.

All of this is really hard, especially when you're a teenager. At the age of 15, fixing things seems easier than loving people. I have always been a great fixer. It's really only now in my 30s that I am learning how to love people as well.

Obviously it's not great to see anyone 'mess up their life', and obviously the more mess people make, the more there is to clean up, but don't forget: our God is the clean-up type of God. No one falls too far to be out of reach of his grace and some of the people with the most terrible lives have the most wonderful testimonies of rescue and redemption.

In the meantime, pursue grace for yourself. Get to know God's unending, overarching love for yourself. It'll start to come out in your life and on your face and you'll be a magnet for people who want to find out about it.

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