Sometimes I hear from parents who are frustrated about how overly devoted their children seem to be to their friends while family relationships and school responsibilities take a back seat. Especially over the last year, parents have complained that their kids have dealt with pandemic isolation by spending every free moment talking and texting with their peers and ignoring those at home.
Certainly, family relationships should be a priority and it’s important to monitor and limit how much time young people spend on their devices. However, parents also should understand supportive peer relationships play a key role in a young person’s emotional wellbeing and mental health.
According to Joseph Allen, Ph.D., co-author of a recent study on teen friendships and mental health published by the Society for Research in Child Development, “Forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience.”
Belonging and Acceptance
Friendships give adolescents and young adults a critical sense of belonging and acceptance during a tumultuous time of life. Peers are going through similar physical changes and are experiencing similar emotional struggles such as fear, insecurity, anxiety or sadness. They can relate to failing a test or a difficult social situation at school. Friends can make each other feel understood and “normal.” Friends often help each other deal with the stressors in their lives. They also may be willing to have honest, difficult and necessary conversations with one-another – conversations that they might feel uncomfortable or scared to have with their parents.
Certainly, some “friendships” during the adolescent and young adult years can be unhealthy and destructive. If you notice that your teen is behaving differently, depressed or upset when interacting with certain friends, you probably want to investigate. But the benefits tend to outweigh the risks. Research shows that teens who have good friends in adolescence generally have better self-esteem, physical and mental health. Other benefits include:
- Lower rates of anxiety and depression
- Happier, more optimistic outlooks
- Stronger emotional regulation skills
- Improved cognitive function
- More empathy and feelings of trust toward others
Even having just one close friend can make a difference, according to the study published by the Society for Research in Child Development. It found that teens who had close friendships had higher levels of self-worth and experienced less social anxiety and depression by the age of 25 than their peers, including those who were popular but lacked deep connections.
Support and Resilience
As clinicians, we frequently talk about how important resilience is to maintaining good mental health. Resilience means being able to adapt to life’s misfortunes and setbacks. High levels of resilience may prevent the development of mental health issues or offset factors – such as being bullied or previous trauma – that increase the risk of anxiety, depression and other common conditions. In therapy, we seek to foster resilience because we know that it will help our clients cope with their mental health challenges.
So, what does resilience have to do with teen friendships?
A 2017 study in Psychological Medicine looked at the connection between adolescent support systems and levels of resilience. The researchers found that both friendship and family support are positive predictors of immediate resilience. Moreover, close friendships, rather than family connections, are the strongest predictor for long-term resilience.
COVID-19 has limited face-to-face interaction among young people, and we don’t yet know the full extent of the mental health fall-out for them. Nor do we know whether their increased reliance on technology to forge friendships can mitigate any negative impact. We do know however, that friendships can help young people cope with adversity. So, if your teen is interacting in healthy, mutually-supportive and positive ways online with their friends – no matter how much you dislike their attachment to their device – it may be providing some much-needed connection and support.
It takes certain skills to develop positive and close teen friendships. If you are concerned about your child’s ability to connect with their peers, I’m here to help. Contact me to set up a time to talk.