Parents of teenagers may sometimes feel that their children are only interested in their friends and have little time for family or school work. That may be an exaggerated perception, but new research by the industry journal Child Development shows that middle teens, those ages 15 and 16, who have a close friend, even within a larger peer group, exhibit higher self esteem, lowers levels of anxiety and depression  and have a great sense of self worth than children who are broadly popular.

Friendships, regardless of the age, can be complex relationships that are challenging to navigate. Add the teen years to the mix when emotions can run high and life presents new drama on a daily basis, and many teens – and their parents – can feel confused about the meaning of friendship.

Friends Online vs Friends IRL

Social media has changed the way we as a society interact. Too often it’s easy to amass friends on Facebook and other social media platforms and not actually engage with people beyond a computer screen. Teenagers, in particular, need real friends, not just online friends, to have authentic conversations about authentic experiences beyond the filters that are provided by the digital world.

That isn’t to say that friends online aren’t real friends. Many rich relationships have developed through digital or social media introductions. But particularly in the formative teenage years, it’s important for young people to interact with and have real time shared experiences with peers and friends so they can begin to put the world around them in perspective.

Why Teenage Friendships Are Important

Teenage and adolescent friendships help young people form relationships outside the dynamic of their family structure. These friendships expose them to new ideas and new ways of thinking and doing things. This helps them develop their critical thinking skills beyond what they may be exposed to at home or within the confines of their family structure.

While the quality of the friend – and friendship – can have equal weight, the social skills that develop through teenager friendships can help adolescents mature into mature and thoughtful adults. Exposure to toxic relationships or friends who regularly engage in troublesome behavior can help kids make decisions about the kind of person they want to be, and they type of people that they want to engage with going forward.

Teen Chat Rooms

Teen chat rooms – online forums where teens can engage in unfiltered and uncensored chat with other teens – can be both a resource and a problem waiting to happen. Among peers and friends, many teens feel uncomfortable discussing sensitive topics to satisfy their curiosity.

Chat rooms can be a resource for information that they are uncomfortable discussing at home. However, knowing when to stop engaging in a chat – for example, if the teen is feeling pressured to bullied to say or do more than they are comfortable with – is important. Generally, that ability to step away comes from a sense of self worth that comes from having a real friend that they can trust and with whom they feel safe.

Good Friends Are Worth Their Weight

It’s not uncommon for teens to believe they have no friends or to feel isolated. Rapid changes in their physicality, their emotions, the level of expectation from teachers and parents can make many teens turn inward rather than discuss their feelings. If your teen appears to be isolated or alone, encourage them to participate in club and community activities that interest them. This will allow them to meet new, like-minded people, and to cultivate friendships.

Teenage friendships help cultivate a sense of belonging which in turn helps adolescents feel confident in their environment and situations. Confident teenagers generally perform better in school and have greater capacity to be empathetic to others.

Teenager Friendships Mean Happier Adults

The same study by the Journal of Child Development that reported middle teens with a close friend had higher levels of self worth also revealed that these middle teens displayed lower levels of depression and social anxiety at the age of 25 than did teens who did not have a close friend or friendship.

What is important for teens and their families to understand is that the friendships they form as teenagers set the foundation for how they interact socially in later years. While many friendships from the teen years last a lifetime, it’s equally common for friends to outgrow their shared interests as they mature. But the ability to communicate, to be respectful of interests and feelings, and learning how to trust someone outside the family unit is an important developmental stage.

Teenager friendships play an important role in child development. Unless a friendship is causing your child to engage in dangerous behavior, it’s important to let your teen navigate the choppy waters of relationships so they can have a stronger understanding of how to engage and relate to others when they reach adulthood.

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