As a teen, I had a few close friendships—one in particular, Katrina, was my bestie, and to this day we still call each other “BFF.” She’s a second sister to me, and she and her family are the only remaining people who still call me “Krissy,” my childhood nickname. Even with Katrina as my BFF, though, as a teen, I was still desperate for the approval of others.
The “popular crowd” was a distinct and exclusive group that I yearned to be a part of. I embarrassed myself many times trying to fit in with the cool kids who were generally indifferent to me. It didn’t occur to me that I should actually like those people. It was the validation of my worth that I craved, not the friendships themselves.
A recent study has identified some interesting relationships between the types of friendships we have during our teenage years and our emotional stability in adulthood. The study, which followed 169 students from ages 15-25, revealed a couple of interesting points: the first was that students who formed close bonds with just a few people tended to suffer less from anxiety and depression in their twenties.
This doesn’t come as a huge surprise considering study after study has demonstrated a correlation between human connectivity and mental health. For any of us who’ve had a bestie or a small tight-knit group of besties, we know the profound joy these loved ones bring to our lives.
Friendships for teens are important for their emotional development
The second point was that the converse was also true—students who demonstrated a desire for approval from a broader peer group reported greater levels of social anxiety later on.
We parents generally hope for our teens to form close, meaningful friendships, but we may want this without fully understanding the greater long-term positive impact these relationships can have on our kids’ overall wellbeing, or why they’re preferable over, for example, socializing with shallower connections within a larger group. This study sheds light on these different types of relationships.
For me, my teen years were marked by both close friendships and the craving for approval from “the cool kids.” I have struggled with social anxiety and some depression, but I wouldn’t say that my close friendships or my desire to fit in with a larger group caused these struggles. Rather, for me at least, it was the other way around—my anxious personality led me to seek belonging and validation from sources outside of myself.
I was socially anxious all through my tween and teen years, and that anxiety carried right on through my college years and adulthood. What if they don’t like me? has remained a horrifyingly common refrain in my head. I’m getting better at ignoring that stupid voice, but I still have to fight it.
So that’s the caveat: researchers who performed the study as well as others who reviewed it admitted that the study only revealed a link which suggests correlation—not causation—and so we should be careful not to attempt to draw conclusions about the causes for these findings without further study.
It’s tempting to see these results and let the takeaway be, “Close friendships lead to lower levels of depression and anxiety later in life.” It seems logical to conclude that my adolescent need to prove my self-worth via strangers who had no emotional interest in me whatsoever contributed to my later struggles with anxiety and depression. But I don’t think that’s the case.
I was predisposed to social anxiety and depression in the first place. Those predispositions contributed to the way I made (and attempted to make) friends in high school, and they also contributed to the anxious adult I became. One thing might predict the other, but that doesn’t mean it causes it. Being aware of the link between close friendships and later emotional contentment simply offers a lens through which to view the larger picture.
So how do we translate knowledge like this into a tool we can use to help our teens? For me, I’ll use this as a conversation starter to encourage my kids to develop close bonds with a smaller group of good friends. At the moment, neither my tween nor my teen seems inclined to try to impress anyone but themselves, so I’m calling that a win.
But I’ll keep talking about this, because between the studies that have come out and my own personal experience, I know the best thing for my kids’ mental health both now and in the long run is to develop meaningful friendships, not to try to impress the cool kids.