Parents intuitively know that their children’s friendships are important. They want them to learn how to be a good friend and to maintain solid friendships because we know these skills are critical to lifelong happiness.
But those relationships might be even more crucial than we thought.
A new book by Lydia Denworth, “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond,” explains the connection between social relationships and personal health. Interactions with friends help lower stress, keep our brains healthy, improve cardiovascular functioning and immune systems, and help us live longer.
Denworth explains the emerging science on how and why friendship literally changes our brains and bodies.
“Over the last few decades, evidence has piled up to show that our relationships, including friendships, affect our health at a much deeper level -- tweaking not just our psychology and motivation, but the function and structure of our organs and cells,” she writes.
It turns out that friendships are just as essential to staying healthy as diet, exercise and sleep. While this takeaway may not come as a big surprise to many, social relationships don’t figure into parenting and education decisions at the level they deserve.
Denworth said researching the book affected the way she parents her own children. She reprioritized the time her adolescent children wanted to spend with friends, better understood the depths of their emotions around friendships, relaxed about the hours her son spent playing video games with a buddy during their summer break, and rethought her reluctance on sleepovers. She also relaxed about social media use: Research finds it’s not necessarily as detrimental as originally thought, and can be used in productive ways.
“There’s a balancing act (for parents) of not over-inserting (friends) in kids’ social lives, but understanding that their social lives are hugely important for their lifelong health and happiness, and that these are skills that must be polished,” she said.
When children are younger, parents can take a more active role in arranging play dates, checking in with teachers if their child seems to be struggling socially, and encouraging positive social interactions. Similarly, schools can be more proactive when children are young. They can incorporate tools like a recess “buddy bench,” where children can find playmates when they need one.
They can also help guide young children to better understand social cues when asking to join in a game.
It’s not about being the most popular kid, Denworth said. She cites research that found that, for a child being bullied, having even a single friend provides an emotional buffer and support.
But facilitating friendship becomes trickier when children are older and averse to social engineering by adults.
When children move to middle school, it’s normal for them to experience significant turnover in their circle of friends, she said. Parents can empower their children with this knowledge as they go through this transition, and reassure them it’s normal to discover new friendships. She cites a study of middle schoolers in which two-thirds of sixth-graders changed friendships between the fall and spring of their first year of middle school.
Schools ought to provide robust support for affinity groups and clubs. These encourage social ties and give students the opportunity to make new friends and create a sense of belonging, at a time when children are struggling to create their own identities. Children do better in school when they collaborate with friends.
The public perception is that loneliness increases as people age, but Denworth found research that indicates that young people experience the most loneliness. Given the amount of attention schools and parents pay to preventing bullying, it makes sense to pay just as much attention to fostering friendships.
Friendship is much more than an emotional bonus; it’s a biological imperative.
We ought to treat it as such.