Friends with Autonomy

Being popular isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but new research says it’s a decent indicator of how well teens will form friendships in the future. Many teens who struggle to make friends in high school continue to have problems creating lasting relationships in adulthood.

While it’s not always the case, new research from the University of Virginia says a teen's social habits in high school can predict problems they may face as adults. 

Studying Adolescent Friendships

Over the course of 10 years, researchers followed about 150 teens beginning at age 13 to learn how their interactions with peers during their teen years affected them as adults. Besides information from the teens themselves, researchers gathered data from their parents, friends, and romantic partners.

Lead researcher Joseph P. Allen said that teens face a high-wire act when dealing with their peers.

"They need to establish strong, positive connections with them while at the same time establishing independence in resisting deviant peer influences,” he said in a press release accompanying the study, published Wednesday in the journal Child Development. “Those who don't manage this have significant problems as much as a decade later.”

Adolescence is a key period of development, both socially and mentally, and researchers believe that how children adapt socially in their teen years typically follows them into adulthood. 

Problems for Those Who Fail to Connect

Making friends isn’t the easiest thing for some people to do. Even without a developmental disorder like autism or a mental illness like depression, some teens have a difficult time connecting with others. 

The Virginia researchers found that teens who had trouble establishing strong, meaningful bonds with their friends in high school also had problems managing arguments in romantic relationships later in life.

One interesting fact the researchers discovered is that teens who were viewed as desirable companions were more likely to drink heavily at a younger age and to continue to have problems with drugs and alcohol in adulthood.

But, as many of us remember from our high school days, doing whatever your friends are doing, without question, isn’t always the best plan.

The Pluses of Bucking the System

When your parents asked, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?” they were onto something. 

Teens who follow their peers blindly can fall victim to a herd mentality and may follow their friends into trouble. This includes taking up drinking, smoking, shoplifting, and other delinquent behaviors. 

Teens who have difficulty establishing a certain level of independence from their peers—namely by avoiding deviant behavior—are at a greater risk for substance abuse and criminal behavior later in life, researchers said.

This is where autonomy among friends is important: it helps teens make their own decisions when their friends are making dumb ones.

Researchers said that teens who were able to connect with peers while retaining their own autonomy were rated—by their parents—as most competent at the end of the study when the children reached the age of 23.

“There is a positive pathway through the peer jungle of adolescence, but it is a tricky one for many teens to find and traverse,” Allen said. 

What’s a Parent to Do?

Some of this information may seem like common sense to seasoned parents, but it’s important to know that the issues and anxieties they faced in high school haven’t changed much today. 

The most important thing parents can do is to model good behavior, especially when they interact with one another and other adults.

“Teaching teens how to stand up for themselves in ways that preserve and deepen relationships—to become their own persons while still connecting to others—is a core task of social development that parents, teachers, and others can all work to promote,” Allen said.

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