By Katrina Rozga, MC (Psych)
It’s no secret that friendships are essential to our mental health and wellness. Support, connection, motivation and an emotional outlet are all benefits to having supportive, caring, like-minded people in your life.
For children and teens, friendships offer even more riches. At a time in their lives where development and growth are fast-paced, friends are a key interface for learning social skills, empathy, adaptability, resilience and other important life skills. During childhood, friendships are a classroom and our friends are our teachers.
In younger children, time with friends allows kids to develop both physically and socially. They learn control over their body through active play, such as playing tag or dressing up. Some of the most important positive benefits seen from play are the adaptability that comes from learning how to respond to changing situations and the cooperation needed to maintain peace and stability between friends. These very basic skills are critical throughout life.
When looking at older kids and moving into the teen years, peer relationships become far more important. Any parent of a teen can attest to their constant need to see their friends. Picking your child up from school becomes an exercise in extraction and buzzing phones and social media updates are the new soundtrack to dinnertime.
At this point many parents may ask themselves how they should be managing their teens’ busy social life. Teens don’t need to spend every waking minute in contact with their friends, and socializing shouldn’t get in the way of other activities. But parents do need to acknowledge their importance and allow time for peer relationships.
Most of our social interaction in childhood is with our family, but in adolescence this naturally expands to individuals outside the family. Spending more time with non-family members allows teens to learn the difference between various roles such as parent, sibling, close friend, acquaintance and romantic partner.
Friendships are also an important part of life long good health and success, and are known to improve self-esteem. Teens who do not develop good social skills are at risk for poorer academic, social and emotional adjustment. Friends can be a positive influence and can provide encouragement and motivation to do well at school or develop passions and interests.
Friendships are also more important in future success than many parents realize. Interpersonal skills in the workplace can mean the difference between getting a promotion and not being seen as management material. Most jobs will require an individual to work with others and stronger social skills mean an ability to adapt to working with a larger variety of people. So while academics do set the stage for success in the future, they only tell half the story. It’s important not to overlook friendships and the impact they have on raising well-rounded, healthy and independent young adults.