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Adults undervalue teen friendships. Here’s how to support them.

(Matt Rota/Illustration for The Washington Post)
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In middle school, Bryan James Robles joined the track team mostly to keep up with his three closest friends. Running turned out to be transformative for him, instilling not only discipline but also academic excellence, because he needed good grades to stay on the team. But in 10th grade, Robles blew a key race and did not qualify for the state championships for which he’d been training all year, mile after mile in the hot sun. “I told my parents I was going to quit. I’m done,” he recalls. But his buddies said: “You got this. Pick yourself up.” He did, and he made it to the championships the following year.

It’s a long way — and not only in miles — from Rio Rancho, N.M., where Robles grew up, the child of Mexican immigrants who speak little English, to New York University, where he recently completed his freshman year. Naturally timid, Robles, 19, says he never would have had the grades or the guts to go to college so far from home if it hadn’t been for his best friends and the ways they supported and challenged him.

Adolescence can be a tumultuous time, and to make sure teens stay focused, the adults in their lives often push them toward things that seem to augur success: doing well in school, helping around the house, participating in sports or community service. But what adults tend to underappreciate, experts say, is the value of close teen friendships.

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“The main thing I have learned from listening to teenagers since the late ’80s is that they are starving for deep, intimate connections with other people,” says Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology at NYU and an expert on teenage boys’ friendships. “And they keep on running up against a culture of adults that basically say: ‘That’s not important. What’s important is for you to study for that test and to get good grades and SAT scores.’ ”

Parents may be wary of peers who could steer their children toward risky behaviors, and research does suggest that hanging out with underage drinkers, rule-breakers or petty criminals can lead to trouble. But positive peer influences can be equally powerful. Studies have shown that children who develop supportive, trusting friendships with others their age are more likely to become healthy, happy and professionally successful adults.

This insight may be particularly timely, because so many teens are struggling. Psychiatric emergency room visits have been rising among adolescents, and top health authorities are warning that the United States is in the midst of a teen mental health crisis that the pandemic has only intensified. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 44 percent of high school students surveyed had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the previous year, and almost 20 percent had seriously considered suicide. But the CDC researchers also discovered a potential antidote: Teens who felt close to people at school fared better on all mental health measures.

Psychologist Joseph Allen and his team at the University of Virginia have been following nearly 200 adolescents since 1998. One of his lab’s most robust findings is that having one or more strong friendships during the teen years predicts a range of benefits later on: academic success, better mental health, rewarding romantic relationships in young adulthood. A study they published in 2015 found that teens with close friendships were even physically healthier as adults.

Allen’s lab has also found that the “cool” kids at ages 13 to 15 — those who valued and attained popularity — became young adults who struggled to form meaningful relationships and were more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs. When it comes to predicting who is most likely to succeed, Allen says, “what we’re learning is that it’s not who is popular. It’s not who is the life of the party. It’s more likely the two ninth-graders that [are] spending Friday night sitting around their basement watching YouTube videos and eating cookies but forming a friendship that is durable, and that teaches the skills that you need to then make it as an adult.”

Unlike the interactions teens have with adults, which come with established expectations, peer bonds have more fluidity, offering opportunities to experiment, says clinical psychologist Erlanger Turner, a professor at Pepperdine University and the founder of Therapy for Black Kids. These relationships can also involve positive peer pressure. “They push each other in good ways,” Allen says. That was Robles’s experience. “Cody over here ran eight miles. I’m going to try to go 8.5 miles today,” he says. “It was friendly competition, but still competition.”

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Adolescents also give each other feedback with a stark honesty that parents might not get away with, whether it’s, “You need to use deodorant,” or, “Let’s compromise.” Says Allen: “The young person who has a little temper tantrum and says, ‘I don’t want to see that movie, I want to see this movie,’ they get a lot of strong feedback that socializes them that that’s not what you do.”

How adults can help foster teen friendships

Avoid applying pressure or probing. Pressuring children about their friendships or asking probing questions will probably be perceived as intrusive and cause them to shut down. “Parents want the best for their kids, and sometimes they can get a bit pushy,” Turner says. “And that can backfire, resulting in the child distancing themselves from their parent.”

Discuss how to be a good friend and resolve conflicts. Use a celebrity feud or your own minor disagreement with a relative to initiate conversations that get teens thinking about how they want to behave and be treated in their friendships. What should you do when a friend hurts your feelings — or you hurt theirs? Should you tell a friend whether you think they’re making a bad decision? When a friend is feeling down, what’s the best way to show support? You might even ask a teen’s advice, within limits, about your own friendship dilemmas, NYU’s Way suggests. “Kids are starving to be talked to like an adult, meaning taking them seriously and taking their opinions seriously.”

Bring children together. Welcome your teen’s friends into your home and, if possible, bring them along on family vacations. Help young people see their friends independently by dropping them at the mall or a skate park.

Don’t criticize friends you don’t like. If your child has a friend you don’t approve of, keep it to yourself unless the peer poses an actual danger, says Jillian Rose, director of the Teen Connection Project at Wyman, a St. Louis-based youth development organization. If you remain nonjudgmental, your teen is more likely to consult with you if things go awry.

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Focus on quality, not quantity. The experience of closeness is what matters, so having even one good friend is enough. But some teens might not want a close buddy, and that’s okay, too. In that case, Turner suggests supporting more low-key social interactions. “Ask your kid, ‘Is there someone that you had a good time with today?’ ” he says. “If we can get kids to identify one person or peer that they feel connected to in some type of way, that’s important and helpful for their development.”

Be open to all varieties of friendship. Although social media can be harmful to children when there is bullying or negative comparisons, gaming and other forms of online socializing can also build solid bonds, especially for kids who are anxious or have trouble making friends at school. “Many teens grew up with social media and technology, so it’s a significant aspect of their lives,” Turner wrote in an email. If you wonder whether an adolescent’s online relationships are healthy, he added, “you can ask them, ‘Why do you spend so much time connecting with friends online instead of in person?’ That may help you get an idea about how significant those relationships are” and whether they are beneficial.

Adolescence is when people begin figuring out who they are and how to become independent from their families, so friendships formed during these years have special resonance. “There’s just so much energy and passion that comes with adolescents in general, and that transfers into the relationships that they have,” Rose says. “They can share so deeply and be so supportive and so vulnerable with one another.”

Emily Laber-Warren directs the health and science reporting program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

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