“My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.” – Henry Ford.
Friendships, a foundational marker of health and wellness, can be hard to define and quantify. These relationships, forged through commonalities and shared experiences, are not biological links – yet they shape our lives in powerful ways. Some friends may be lifelong, generations of friendships forged from parents, and children, and the children’s parents. Other friendships shift and change along with our maturity, our life stage, or circumstance.
The value of friendships and close social relationships can be seen across research, and life stage. Children and adolescents rank spending time with friends second only to time with family in their happiness rankings. Older adults express fear, sadness, and loneliness at the thought of their friendship circle diminishing. No matter what life stage a person is in, a friend is interpreted as someone to share conversation and enjoyment, and someone who can be depended upon. That looks different at different ages!
Developmentally, early childhood experiences are shaped by relationships. For infants, the attachment and relationship between the baby and the caregiver is the foundation with which all other skills and development occurs. As a toddler gets older, peers increasingly grow in their importance. Preschools and daycare centers have recognized the importance of these relationships, and have introduced principles of social-emotional learning, and direct social skills are taught to children to learn to share, tolerate others’ ideas, and adjust their play. It is normal for young children to begin using their identity as the basis for friendships, being friends with all of the same-sex peers, or being friends with all of the other girls who like soccer.
As children get older, their social relationships are less arranged by proximity and adult intervention, and children begin making their own choices in friends. While some friendships may carry over from earlier developmental periods, parents also express concern about the categorization of friendships. “This is my best friend at Scouts.” This is also normal, as children adjust and make hierarchies of their relationships. It is important to look for warning signs of social exclusion and bullying, and adults are tasked with walking the balance between letting a child autonomously manage their relationships, and intervening when social mishaps occur.
In adolescence, dating and growing sexuality complicates friendships, and the previously platonic boy-girl best friend duo may feel uncomfortable or awkward if peers, or adults, attempt to define the relationship in more adult, or romantic terms. Adolescents are very influenced by peer pressure, and teens learn from other teens more than they may learn from adults. Peer pressure works protectively, too, and if an adolescent is surrounded by safe, trustworthy teens, he or she is more likely to act safely as well.
Young adults face the first big friendship cliff, where relationships are less likely dictated by shared experiences and proximity. Changing relationships, career and education goals, and increased responsibility changes relationships. For some who may be more introverted, making new relationships and friendships are a considerable effort, and may stir up anxiety or mood experiences as well. As adults shift through parenthood, career milestones, and shift from young, to middle, and then elder, relationships and friendships tend to stabilize. Adults may become friends with other parents at their child’s school, or with colleagues and workmates.
No matter the stage of life, friendships are important to our well being and our mental health. The best friendships are the ones that enhance our lives, or, as Mr. Ford put it, bring out the best in ourselves.