Health + Safety

Report: Studies Show Children With Close Friends Have Long-Term Benefits

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As we know, making friends as a child can be difficult, however, chasing after popularity can be stressful for children and their parents. In a new report from the Wall Street Journal, growing research suggests that children should shift their social energies to create more intimate friendships. Research suggests that these intimate relationships have long-term benefits, such as higher self-esteem and lower levels of anxiety and depression.

New Jersey-based psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore says, “the skills needed to be ‘popular’ can be at odds with those needed for friendship, such as trust and support.”

The children who are “popular” are usually not well-liked by their peers because they engage in unfriendly behaviors, such as gossiping and bullying to preserve their popularity. As the WSJ reports, in a 2011 study published in the Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, Dr. Erdley and colleagues followed 365 students as they transferred from elementary school to middle school. Researchers used self-reported questionnaires that measured elements like friendships, peer acceptance, loneliness, and academic engagement, and found that feeling accepted by peers, as well as having one quality friendship, served as “as unique predictors of both psychological well-being and academic performance during the middle-school transition.”

Dr. Erdley continues that one reason for the boost may be because “students who feel a sense of belonging don’t have to worry as much about what’s going on socially in the classroom, so they can save those cognitive resources to focus on their school work instead.”

Another study published in the Journal of Child Development, researchers found that the quality of friendships during childhood may have long-term benefits that can be valuable. According to the WSJ, researchers at the University of Virginia studied the friendships and mental health of 169 students, first at age 15 and then again at 25 – along with the participants’ friends. The researchers used interviews and questionnaires to assess levels of self-worth, anxiety, symptoms of depression and feeling about social acceptance. As a conclusion of the study, researchers found that participants who had a more intimate bond with a best friend at age 15 reported a bigger boost in self-worth, less social anxiety, and fewer symptoms of depression at the age of 25 than their peers. Youth who had a larger social network and less intimate friendships reported higher level of anxiety when they reached their mid-20’s.

Having experienced intimate friendships, teens gain the motivation they need to create a supportive social network in the future. Rachel Narr, lead author, says “while teens who are less anxious and have higher self-esteem may find it easier to form strong friendships, the research finds that close, supportive friendships contribute to greater mental-health outcomes in the long term, no matter the baseline.”

So, how can parents ensure that their children develop the skills they need to make close friends – and most importantly keep them? Here are some tips from the Wall Street Journal:

Boost conversational skills: Dr. Kennedy-Moore, author of “Growing Friendships,” offers a simple formula to keep a conversation going. When a potential friend asks how you’re doing, respond “Great!” plus one (that is, an additional fact, compliment or question). The “Great!” signals interest, and the statement shows that you’d like to keep the conversation going.

Read cues: In order to read situations well, children need to learn how to read nonverbal cues, including tone of voice, body language, and facial expression. Researchers find that preteens who spend less time in front of the screen (TV, tablets, cell phones) are better with these cues because they experience it first-hand, which means parents should limit time their children spend on electronics and encourage them to interact with their peers.

Build a rapport with “Intimacy Management”: Fred Frankel, a professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at the University of California, says there are easy ways teens and children to make friends. “To make a new friend, start by talking about superficial things, like class schedules,” he explained. “Then test the waters by moving on to something more intimate, like difficulty with a teacher. If the peer is receptive, that’s an invitation to open up more and maybe seek advice.”

Practice forgiveness: No one is perfect and all friends make mistakes. A secret to keeping long-term friends and being a good friend is learning how to forgive and move forward. “If it wasn’t deliberate, if it’s unlikely to happen again, and the friend is genuinely sorry, encourage your child to let it go.”

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