Why your teenager’s friendships are more important than you realize
Adolescence is often panned in parenting circles as a season of child-rearing that is fraught with challenges and frustration. Gone is the child you thought you knew, and in his place stands an awkward, often unhappy stranger who understands himself and his own motivations about as well as you do, which is to say hardly at all.
As a parent, you feel the sharp sting of having been replaced as his world now revolves around his friends instead of his family. You loved him so much that you changed his dirty diapers, sacrificed your own desires for his private school tuition or a brand-new guitar, and cherished every moment of his young life, even the really hard ones. And now he stands before you with a blank expression worn like a mask as he awaits your decision as to whether he can indeed borrow your car on Friday night. He no longer clings to your skirt and demands attention from you. His friends are his life now, and his family is perhaps a distant second on his priority list.
Oh, the bittersweet heart wrenching that takes places as our children forge ahead in life without us.
But here’s some good news for you. For all of that time spent with his friends, there’s some new evidence showing that these adolescent friendships aren’t just for fun. They may have a profound impact on your child’s well-being for at least the next decade. And while it might not erase all of your anguish, this knowledge may smooth a little salve over those wounds you’re nursing.
Close friendships in adolescence protect mental health in adulthood
A recent study published in Child Development indicates that the presence of a close friendship in adolescence has far-reaching implications for the next decade of a person’s life. Teenagers who nurtured a close friendship were less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety in their mid-twenties and experienced a greater sense of self-worth. This study seems to indicate that having a close friendship in adolescence offers a sort of protection against many of the common mental health issues faced by young adults.
It’s interesting to note, though, that this benefit to a person’s mental health doesn’t occur when you look at the person’s broader appeal to their peer group. The more friends a person has is actually associated with an increase in social anxiety. The significance of adolescent friendships seems to lie not in the number of friends a person has, but in the strength of a close friendship. Popularity isn’t important; it’s the true knowing and being known by another person that provides a teen with critical life skills that will serve him well for years to come.
What you can do to facilitate your teen’s friendships
How do we procure this friendship benefit for our kids? Well, we can’t exactly. But we can teach our kids some important social skills and foster an environment that will help them make and maintain friendships.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Help your child become involved in extracurricular or community activities if they are having trouble forming friendships. Getting involved in something they like to do will help them find others with similar interests.
- Encourage them to strike up a conversation with new people. Teach them how to ask questions to get to know someone and share of themselves as well.
- Explain the importance of communicating openly.
- Talk to them about listening and sharing equally. Talk about listening closely and maintaining eye contact when a friend is sharing something about themselves as well as offering support, encouragement and positive feedback to this friend.
- Have your teen spend time thinking about the qualities that are important to them in a friendship. Identifying what they value in a friend will help them make choices about the people they spend time with.
- Explain some of the responsibilities that come along with a friendship- respect for the other person, keeping information confidential, facing conflict and working through problems.
- Perhaps most importantly, give your teen the freedom and the encouragement they need to go out and have fun with their friends. Recognize that this time with friends is something they truly need and give them the opportunity to pursue it.
So now that you know that your teen’s friendships aren’t vain and meaningless and sought after for the sole purpose of annoying you, you might be better able to help your child pursue and maintain healthy friendships. While we may all prefer that our kids, no matter their age, snuggle up with us for movie night on the couch every Friday night, we’ll sacrifice one more thing for their benefit as we send them out the door with their friends.
They may not know enough yet to appreciate our support, but perhaps one day they’ll understand what it took for us to give it. Not today, but maybe one day.