The other day I had the pleasure of spending time with one of my oldest and dearest friends. We’ve known each other for well over two thirds of our lives now. At the age of 11, pure circumstance brought us together when my family moved into the house next door to hers. And even though we didn’t go to the same school, we spent a bucket load of time together during our adolescence. Mostly we just sat in the gutter outside our homes, speaking into each other’s hearts. Nearly every day.
And I am eternally thankful that she was there, because adolescence was all just a bit hard.
Transitioning from a child to an adult – or being a teenager – are pretty vulnerable years for heaps of reasons. One being how we build social connections.
One of the main biological drivers of adolescence is the urge to belong – to our peers. The desire to create friendship circles outside of our family. This involves stepping back from our parents as we build autonomy and independence so that when our pre frontal cortex has finished developing and the executive functioning part of the brain that makes mature choices is complete, we can go out into the world as a fully functioning and sustainable adult (well, that’s the theory anyway).
I remember the majority of the social dynamics in my adolescent world as challenging and fraught. I was not sure whether I “fit” here or there and I remember certain ‘friends’ who caused some particularly brutal wounds (in a weirdly passive way). I remember an incredibly strong need to be liked by everyone and was eager to please anyone around me. Except my parents of course. They had the privilege of experiencing my surly and dark moods.
As teenagers, we learn a great deal through the friendships we make. We learn unspoken codes of conduct that they will take with them throughout life. Being sanctioned by our peers is one of the fastest ways to create the catalyst for an adolescent to change an unhelpful behaviour or uncaring communication. Friendships can make or break an adolescent in many ways.
Throughout my adolescence, I was no different. I learnt a lot through friendship. But I reckon I learnt the most from the one friendship where I spent the hours chatting in the gutter.
Research suggests that the turmoil of the teenage years cannot only be mediated by good social relationships, but there’s also research to suggest that bonds from adolescence might have an outsized role in a person's mental health for years.
In a study published last year, researchers followed 169 people for 10 years, starting when they were 15 years old. At age 15 and again at 16, the participants were asked to bring in their closest friends for one-on-one interviews with the researchers. They were asked who their closest friends were, and detailed questions about their friendships in general. The interviewers also asked them about anxiety, social acceptance, self-worth, and symptoms of depression. They were then asked these questions again at age 25.
They triangulated the teens’ responses, making sure best friends concurred on being best friends, and those who said they were popular had reports from others of actually being popular. “High-quality friendships” were defined as “close friendships with a degree of attachment and support, and those that allow for intimate exchanges.”
The study found that those who had strong relationships in adolescence – good communication, asking for advice and support, connecting with the other person – paid dividends in adulthood. the researchers evaluated the participants at the conclusion of the study, the ones who had close, emotional links showed improvement in their levels of anxiety, depression and self-worth. In other words, they reported less depression and anxiety and more self-worth at 25 than they had at 15 and 16.
Furthermore, those who had more stable relationships — who brought the same best friend to the study at 15 and again at 16 — seemed to do the best. The participants who didn't exhibit the same kind of closeness with their friends didn't show much change in symptoms of depression and anxiety or in their sense of self-worth over the study's 10 years.
The study also looked at how popular or well-liked the participants were at 15 or 16 to see whether those factors had more to do with the drop in depression and rise in self-worth than having close friends. But the researchers only saw a correlation with strong friendships.
The research mirrors other studies which show that there are two types of popularity: people who are likable—their peers trust them and want to be with them—and those who seek status, and often try to wield that popularity as power. Mitch Prinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina has argued that people who seek to be likable tend to end up in healthier, in better relationships, with more fulfilling work, and even live longer. Status-seekers, on the other hand, often end up anxious, depressed, and with addiction problems.
It's tough to know exactly what is going on here, but we can probably made some educated guesses. One is that unwavering support acts as a kind of protective buffer against insults to your self-worth or feelings of depression. This can be especially beneficial during adolescence, a formative period when peer feedback has extra gravity.
These friendships could also help with our emotional development. Adolescent relationships might help us learn certain social and emotional skills that benefit us for life. It's the first opportunity for people to learn how to be trusting and vulnerable with another person, and using those skills to establish closer, more stable relationships throughout life may be beneficial as well.
Friendship means everything to a teen. It did to me. In order to be socially and personally acceptable we need to be seen to have friends. The biological urge to belong is so strong that adolescents can do all sorts of things to be part of a crowd. Nothing is as threatening in the social network of adolescents as being alone. Being a loner occasionally is not unusual, but it is developmentally unhealthy to be alone all the time and to avoid hanging out with a friend.
Luckily for me, even if my friendships became fraught or challenged at school or sport, I always had my place in the gutter beside a beautiful friend during my adolescence. I had someone who made sure I never felt alone, was right there beside me, someone to talk to and cry with. Someone to share the joy, laughter and achievements with.
I’ve learnt about the value of friendship many times over in my adventures through life and I also know that I would not be the same person without my lovely friend’s 20-plus year presence in my life. Our friendship has taken on all types of different meanings over the years, but when we were teenagers, and I felt unsure of myself, the people around me or the world, she was always there. Without judgment, just with love.
It might be unclear exactly why having a best friend matters in the teenage years, but maybe all we need to know is that simply the presence of a best friend matters. That makes sense to me.