Cultivating Relationships in Real Life

Seven Strategies for Guiding Lonely Young Adults

Magazine Issue
March/April 2024

When I began working with Sam, they were entering their senior year in an alternative high school with a graduating class of just 40 kids. Sam is nonbinary, anxious, shy, quirky, and introspective.

Their mother had hoped transferring to the smaller school would offer them a greater sense of connection and belonging, but although they had a few good acquaintances, they didn’t want to hang out with any of them after school.

Prior to starting therapy, Sam had spent much of their time either watching TikTok videos or marinating quietly in distressing thoughts about how others judged them. Early in our work, I’d suggested that the world was a big place, and somewhere out there, beyond that tiny high school, existed many people who shared their sensitivity, perspective, and values. I asked Sam to close their eyes and conjure up a feeling of greater belonging, looking for details of where that might be, what was happening all around in this imagined place, and how that felt. Sam was uncomfortable with this exercise and dispatched with it in a few seconds.

But a week later, much to my astonishment, Sam told me they’d started applying to large, urban universities. It was an exciting and bold decision. Then, in early March of 2020 (do you see where this story is going?), Sam learned they’d been accepted to their first-choice school—and a heartbeat later, the pandemic was upon us all. They didn’t want to take a gap year stuck at home, so in the fall of 2020, full of courageous self-talk, they headed for the big city.

No one could have imagined what happened next. In Sam’s first year of college, there was little opportunity for casual socializing, eating out, watching live music. They barely left their room, got headaches from being online all day, and waited impatiently for inedible food a masked stranger delivered to the door in a plastic bag. We continued to meet every week or two over Zoom and—helplessly, if predictably—I witnessed Sam’s anxiety and depression climb as the social isolation grew evermore intolerable. When finals were over, Sam fled home and is still there, figuring out a new takeoff strategy. Notably, they had been in college for a whole year and had not made a single friend.

Many studies since the onset of the pandemic suggest Sam’s experiences over the past few years were far from extraordinary. Emerging adults with mental health struggles preceding covid lost developmental ground and have been slow to regain it. After three years, Sam has a couple of minimum-wage part-time jobs, a burgeoning IRL (in real life) romantic relationship, and a couple of new casual friends—forward momentum to be sure. But for Sam and a sizeable portion of their generation, the road to adulthood has been extra-rough and lonely.

A study commissioned by Cigna in 2021—in the middle of the pandemic—concluded that 79 percent of young adults were experiencing significant loneliness. But really—and as the research of Jean Twenge and others has been suggesting for some time—the “loneliness epidemic” among high school- and college-age kids has been growing since 2012. More recent explorations indicate people in all age groups are finally starting to feel more connected again; however, emerging adults continue to report the highest levels of loneliness of all groups.

The loneliness epidemic doesn’t have a clear explanation, but several compelling and interrelated theories explain what might be creating and sustaining it. Discussions with young adult clients about their social isolation can be interventions in their own right: how better to feel less lonely than to have someone to share it with? Here are a few key areas to consider in these discussions.

Social Media

Of course, social media can be essential for keeping people connected, but many young adults struggle more with face-to-face interaction now because relationships mediated by screens have become so seemingly safe and comfortable. This strategy might be more nourishing if evolution hadn’t wired us for whole-body connection and interaction. The fact is, people suffer when they don’t have enough IRL contact.

Social media also diminishes or alters our sense of what we can ask of friends and makes it hard to know what’s real about a connection—or even what actual belonging feels like. In her groundbreaking work exploring the impact of technology on loneliness, Sherry Turkle wrote, “Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone. And there is the risk that we come to see each other as objects to be accessed—and only for the parts we find useful, comforting, or amusing.” Though the online life offers myriad benefits, for many emerging adults, it offers a painful paradox: the more time they spend using social media, the lonelier they’ll feel.

You might ask young clients: How does social media help you stay connected with friends, expand your social experiences, and keep you from being lonely? Did you do things with friends IRL in the past that you don’t do much anymore? Are you texting instead of talking, FaceTiming instead of seeing them in person? How does this feel? How is it helpful?

Can you tell me about times when you had misunderstandings online? When texting made things worse? Do you want help learning how to meet people and resolve conflicts in person? Do you want help cutting back on your time spent online? Would you be interested in building friendships IRL and exploring how that feels?

Solitude and Self-Soothing

Particularly now, the cheesy advice about learning how to “be your own best friend” actually has some merit. Learning how to self-calm, speak up to the critical voices rattling around inside, make safe choices, and enjoy your own company are worthy goals for people of all ages. But for a generation raised on technology, being alone with boredom, loneliness, discomfort, or even just random weird thoughts poses new challenges. Many of my younger clients have difficulty entertaining themselves tech-free. But we know that the constant need for stimulation and digital distraction elevates cortisol levels. Watch a Gen Zer looking frantically for their missing cell phone or responding instantly to a text message every time it dings (even during therapy) if you don’t believe me.

Some researchers speculate that the increased anxiety of this younger generation is due in part to dopamine dependence—the addiction to stimulation, the divided attention, the need for instant gratification, constant anticipation, and not knowing what will happen next. It’s exhausting. Social isolation is a serious problem, compounded by the distress this generation feels about being alone in the first place.

You might ask young clients: How do you spend your alone time when you aren’t feeling lonely? What did you enjoy doing in the past that you stopped doing? What got in the way? Ask about activities like crafts, reading, meditation, yoga, magic tricks, gaming, making videos, hiking, running, making and listening to music, playing with pets, and writing or journaling.


How well do you feel you know yourself? Are there parts of you that enjoy time alone? Do you like doing things that you feel uncomfortable doing alone, like getting coffee, eating out, going to a movie, hearing live music, or traveling somewhere new? What feelings do you imagine would arise if you did those things on your own—positive or negative? How can I help you make solitude feel better, even as we expand your friendships and build your social life?

Social Capital

Many of my younger clients experience a profound discrepancy between the relationships they’d like to have and those they actually have. Even those who are more socially engaged than Sam speak about the ways their friendships are less satisfying than they wish. Some who have a few close friends want a few more. Those with a big group of friends are still lonely, desiring more depth, intimacy, relaxation, and understanding.

Some research suggests that we need to be with someone six to eight times—IRL—before we start trusting and finding comfort in the connection. And it takes a lot longer for true intimacy. It’s safe to say that some emerging adults are lonely because they have trouble investing the time required to develop more nourishing connections. For them, the therapy relationship offers real practice in real time.

Finding and sustaining friendships in the absence of school or a shared workplace requires exertion. A young grad student of mine explained how this might be daunting: “Well, we’re a very impatient generation. We haven’t had much opportunity to value time and waiting the way you did. We want it to click or else we forget about it.”

Those who carry other burdens struggle to disentangle loneliness from all the compounding stress. Contending with traumatic exposure, marginalized identities, depression, anxiety, substance use, and poverty invariably creates more social obstacles. Your clients from ethnic and racial minority groups, rural locations, neglectful and abusive histories, and LGBTQ+ individuals are likely to experience an outsized impact of social disconnection.

Developing social capital isn’t just about having a network of friends, though that’s important. It also involves the experience of support, power, and possibility that emerges from being part of a larger web of connections across generations. What do you know about your clients’ social capital and their potential for increasing it?

You might ask them: What are you looking for in a friendship? What qualities are most important to you? Some questions about developing social capital I’ve adapted from Search Institute’s The Relationship Builder’s Guidebook include: Who makes your life better in some way? Who shows you that you matter to them? Who pushes you to complete tasks and achieve goals? Who treats you with respect and gives you a say in your life? Who broadens your world and helps you see possibilities for your future? What else can I do to be part of your support team?


Though therapists may be more comfortable talking with emerging adults about feelings and social skills, thoughtful and ongoing therapeutic conversations about money can help us better grasp how disenfranchised our clients actually are. Many contend with extraordinary structural and generational barriers to economic well-being. As Johann Hari describes in his wonderful book Lost Connections, loneliness isn’t just about feeling socially isolated from peers: it’s part of a larger experience of disconnection and disempowerment—from meaningful work, from safe and stable attachments, from the possibility of earning status and respect, from engaging with the natural world, and from the chance to dream about a financially secure future.

What, realistically, is the likelihood that your young client will find a way to earn a living that’s not demeaning or soul crushing? That offers security, value, respect, opportunity, and yes, social engagement? That aligns with their talents, and interests? It’s not hard to imagine how awful it might feel to be so far from knowing what to do, to be stuck in the service or gig economies, or to wander from job to job. And for clients lacking sufficient parental support, this economy may well be a significant source of demoralization and hopelessness. Loneliness is a social-justice issue: poor young people are generally lonelier, more stressed, and more socially isolated than their more privileged peers.

Some money-related questions you might ask young clients are: What lessons about money did you learn from your parents? How much debt do you have today, and what’s the impact of it on your life? What are the things you want in your life that you have and don’t have right now? How much do you blame yourself for your financial stress and how much of it is caused by a broken system that makes things like housing, health care, student loans, healthy food, and fun experiences too expensive? Do you think I understand how difficult it is right now for you to imagine feeling financially secure? Is there a connection between your financial stress and your loneliness? How can I help you handle this stress differently?

Seven Strategies to Build IRL Connections

Once you’ve explored the factors contributing to your younger clients’ isolation, it’s time to collaborate with them on ways to build their social networks and reduce their loneliness. If you’re hopeful about a particular strategy but it falls flat, keep it nearby for a revisit. I ask permission to do this and acknowledge my persistence can be annoying, but I see no harm in circling back and reintroducing a strategy I probably suggested too soon the first time, when I’d rushed into problem-solving instead of simply listening.

Develop Third Places. In 1989, sociologist Ray Oldenberg coined the term third places to talk about the importance of cultivating a life beyond home and work. Third places are, ideally, free from performance and productivity expectations. They’re social hubs that might be fun, relaxing, and socially connective. In them, we often find a cast of regulars or people with a shared interest. The intent isn’t necessarily to stumble on a BFF, but to be part of a community that expands our sense of self and place.

Importantly, the social interaction in third places is often indirect. Last year, Sam agreed to spend two hours a week at a local coffee shop where they were able to be on their laptop while surrounded by the swirl of people coming and going. I encouraged this as a kind of exposure exercise. The café is a pet-friendly place, and Sam is an animal lover, so it was inevitable that they’d interact with not only friendly dogs, but the humans on the other end of the leash. Now and then, Sam even struck up light, enjoyable conversations with people at nearby tables, assured they could retreat behind a screen or book when they needed to.

Here are some third places that my clients have explored in the past few years (this is by no means a definitive list—I’m in rural New England, so the options are more limited than in a bustling city): a climbing wall, riding stable, gym, driving range, photography studio, social-action group, Al-Anon meeting, hiking meet-up, yoga studio, dog park, public library, boardgame club, pinball arcade, pub sing, fantasy football league, woodworking studio, and community garden.

Work with Families and Expand Family Connections. If you haven’t yet completed genograms with your lonely younger clients, do them now. Go deep and wide, exploring the quality of connections with parents, stepparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, godparents, sisters-in-law. Is there anyone—or better yet, more than one person—who might welcome more contact? With Zoom at your fingertips, geography isn’t an obstacle for bringing extended family conversations into the consulting room.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been particularly interested in working with young adult siblings to bolster their level of mutual support and attachment. Sibling relationships are the longest connections we have, but the bond sometimes undergoes big changes in early adulthood, especially when one sibling begins to struggle. If a rupture has occurred between siblings, therapy can support the dyad to regrow their special and often profound friendship.

And of course, parents with adult kids at home may be eager to help in any way they can. Family therapy can reduce loneliness by clarifying roles, expectations, and harsh cultural narratives about adult families living together. One of my favorite interventions during lockdown was helping a jam-making mom team up with her social media–savvy daughter to make and market preserves. This project didn’t fix all my young client’s problems, but it pointed her in the right direction as she got closer to her mother and felt excited and engaged in her life again.

Explore Friend Apps. Using apps to find friends is a burgeoning strategy for young adults, and they can find social support on dozens of friend- and interest-based apps. The best apps to meet new friends nearby include Bumble BFF, Nextdoor, and Meetup. Survey research conducted by Bumble BFF concludes that 66 percent of Gen Z subscribers have made new IRL friends they met online through the app.

If the pressure feels too great to reach out to just one person online, We3 uses personality questionnaires to create friendship groups. There are apps for meeting people with shared interests (Friender), for joining specific communities like gamers (Twitch), and for dog lovers (PawDates).

Address Underlying Social Anxiety and Assume People Like You. Many of my young clients, like Sam, are anxious in social situations. They may have social skills but feel too inept to use them. In Tough to Treat Anxiety, Margaret Wehrenberg suggests that effective intervention with social anxiety begins with the three C’s: calming (learning to relax, tolerate sensations of anxiety, accurately anticipate what will occur), competence (developing strategies for managing groups, interviews, novel social situations), and confidence (practicing and refining an approach to different social circumstances).

Socially anxious young adults also benefit from learning new ways of thinking about social situations. For example, they tend to ascribe problems in communication to something they did wrong, overestimate how much attention people are paying to them, and hold fierce, self-protective expectations that a social interaction will be a flop. Working with young adults to practice more generous and forgiving self-talk can open up the possibility that they’ll expand their social world. With Sam, I focused on possible positive outcomes, asking them to consider, “When that person with the terrier in a fur coat started asking you about the book you were reading, is it possible they wanted to get to know you a little?” “What would happen if you just had some coffee, read a while, and left? Would that be so bad?” “What would be different if you could assume that some people will actually like you?”

Embrace Small Connections and Weak Ties. Some of my younger clients have a low tolerance for relationships that lack passion, chemistry, and excitement. They often maintain an exceptionally high bar for romantic connection (I blame Disney) and believe in soulmates. These lofty ideals sometimes spill over to include similarly unrealistic expectations for platonic friendships.

It may be useful to entertain some different ideas about the range of friendships common in adulthood, focusing on the benefit of multiple kinds of connections. I ask clients about how much closeness they think they need and what kinds of flexibility they have for expanding their range to include best friends, good friends, just friends, people they’d like to be friends with, and people they interact with a little. I tell them about recent research on “the strength of weak ties,” describing how engaging with casual acquaintances like the barista at the coffee shop, or even a total stranger with a cute dog, can be emotionally rewarding.

My client Miles is a college student who had a rough time after he broke up with someone who’d brought him into her longtime friend group. When the relationship ended, Miles simultaneously lost his romantic partner and all his new friends. He was bereft for a long time, but these days he’s trying a different approach. He tells me, “Now I have my pick-up basketball friends, my music friends, and my camping friends. They mostly don’t know each other, but they all know me.” Many different people are filling the void for him now, and he’s less anxious and ruminative.

Learn to Grieve and Let Go. Perhaps fearing the pain of having no one, some emerging adults cling to old, faded friendships or tolerate unsatisfying new connections that reinforce feelings of desperation or unworthiness. But a growing capacity to make and sustain good friendships includes “breaking up” with people who seem unwilling or unable to engage kindly and reciprocally. Yet letting go of even a lousy companion is hard if someone has limited social capital. Scarcity makes each connection more precious, even when it’s not constructive or healthy.

It’s important to create space for grief over losing any friend when clients may have already had to contend with many other losses. They’re likely to have complex feelings of anger, bitterness, rejection, sadness, and hopelessness when giving up on someone. At the same time, all that spiraling preoccupation may limit a client’s resources for moving on.

Volunteer. The benefits of volunteering to reduce social isolation and increase connections and skills are numerous and well-documented. Recent research suggests volunteering may be one of the best available—if often overlooked—cures for loneliness. Volunteering provides opportunities for structure, support, mentorship, social stimulation, and emotional growth. It offers people a way to meet others with similar interests while feeling needed. Volunteering even just a few hours a month might be enough to get the social light back on. The helper’s high is real, after all.

Sam recently spent the weekend partying in a college dorm that, to them, seemed like an alternate universe compared to the one they’d grown accustomed to during the pandemic. When we met afterward, their mood seemed a little brighter to me, and they even mused, “I think I’m almost back to baseline now.” Of course, I’m glad for Sam, and while I want to be hopeful about their future, I can’t predict how they’ll move forward beyond this point. Truthfully, I worry about how long it has taken us even to get this far.

But here’s what I believe and have told them more than once: the best and only way to feel strong enough to face an uncertain future is to have a few trustworthy, caring connections IRL. We can handle almost anything when we don’t have to go it alone. Sam is working hard at that.


Illustrations by Jorm Sangsorn

Martha Straus

Martha Straus, PhD, a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at Antioch University New England, is the author of No-Talk Therapy for Children and Adolescents, Adolescent Girls in Crisis, and Treating Traumatized Adolescents: Development, Attachment, and the Therapeutic Relationship.