Childhood friendship may come and go, and seem superficial from an adult point of view. But don’t underestimate the value of friends to a young person’s well-being.
In fact, a study published in Child Development in August found that strong adolescent friendships can have a positive effect on mental health for years to come.
Those findings do not surprise child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Sumru Bilge-Johnson of the Division of Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology at Akron Children’s Hospital. Adolescents for the first time are forging deep relationships built on trust and loyalty. Those bonds serve as a lifeline during the tumultuous teen years.
“This is a time of metamorphosis, where teens are building self-esteem, questioning their values in a bigger system and solidifying their identity,” Dr. Bilge-Johnson said. “The development of positive friendships during this time is so important to identity and how they feel about themselves.
“For young kids, parents and family provide all the things children need and most importantly, emotional support. But adolescents want to become independent as a part of normal development, and as they strive to become adults, they want to build a support system in the world they live in. They need camaraderie. They need to know they are connected, that they are not alone and they are accepted.”
Research has shown that strong social connections have a positive influence on long-term mental and physical health. Lack of social relationships has an opposite effect. It’s linked to higher rates of depression and premature death.
In the recent study, researchers found that people who had close friendships as teens reported they were less depressed and anxious at age 25 than they were as teens. It seems they grew into happier adults than people who did not forge those close bonds.
“Teens with close friends, they can have stress and adversity in their lives, but they are more resilient,” Dr. Bilge-Johnson said.
As teens forge relationships, they are learning and improving important social skills that will last a lifetime, she said. They learn to listen, how to negotiate, solve problems and resolve conflict. These skills give teens confidence to build relationships going forward, and ultimately may influence with whom they spend the rest of their lives.
“As kids get older, some parents pull out to give the independence to their teens, and they don’t know their friends,” Dr. Bilge-Johnson said. “It’s worth getting to know them and know where they are coming from. They can have such a big impact on who your kids will become as adults.”