Teens are often preoccupied with their social standing. They want to be well-liked and accepted by their peers. They might see the “popular” kids as those who are happier and more likely to succeed in life. But popularity does not always translate into emotional well-being.
Teens with close friends, no matter their social standing with their peers, tend to have less social anxiety than their popular peers during early adulthood, according to a study published in Child Development.
In today’s social media world, shallow friendships can take on an inflated sense of importance. How many friends you have on Facebook or followers on Instagram becomes a measure of popularity and acceptance. As teens are learning about themselves and how they fit into the world around them, they might view popularity as more important than friendship. Popularity might give the impression of acceptance but close friendships help protect from loneliness and social anxiety and can increase long-term emotional health, even years later.
Researchers followed a group of 169 adolescents over 10 years, from the age of 15 until 25. The participants shared information on the importance of friendships, feelings of social acceptance and self-worth, and levels of anxiety and depression. Popularity was also measured based on questionnaires completed by peers.
The researchers found that the teens who prioritized friendships at age 15 had lower levels of social anxiety and depression and an increased sense of self-worth at the age of 25. Those participants whose peers ranked them as popular had higher levels of social anxiety as young adults. The researchers believe that close friendships lead to positive feelings of self. These friendships might also set the stage for expecting and receiving emotional support in the adult years. They concluded, “Forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience … and these experiences stay with us, over and above what happens later.”
Being and staying popular requires that we constantly perform. It adds pressure to be perfect, to perform the best and never show sadness or disappointment. It is as if you are constantly on stage. If you let down your hair, relax and show your imperfections, you risk losing your popularity. With true friends, however, you can be yourself. You can be sad, feel lost or show insecurities and they will still be there for you. Friends don’t care about your intelligence, your talents or your abilities; there is an emotional bond that allows you to simply enjoy each other for who you are. These types of friendships are the ones that give us a sense of acceptance and self-worth.
If your teen has anxiety, making friends might be difficult. Try sharing these tips:
Join activities that you enjoy. Sometimes teens join clubs or sports because they think others will like them better. Instead, think about your interests and join activities you find enjoyable. You will meet other people who share your interests.
Work on enjoying your own company. Spend time by yourself, exploring what you like and why you like it. The more you like yourself, the more others will like you.
Make an effort. If someone says “hello,” say it back. Smile at someone or start a conversation with the person with the locker next to yours, the person sitting next to you in math class. Reach out to others.
Be a friend. Model the behavior you would like to see in a friend. Listen and be supportive and encouraging to others. Be a friend to other people and you will more than likely find that some choose to be a friend to you.
Remember that everyone you meet won’t become a BFF. Life is full of people we meet, some we never see again, some are acquaintances, some become friends. You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend and they don’t have to be yours. One or two close friends are worth a thousand acquaintances.
Stick with those you enjoy being around. We sometimes leave behind potential friends in pursuit of better friends. If you enjoy spending time with someone, you don’t need to move on. Instead, work to develop that friendship.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.