The value of friendships

I have previously highlighted an OECD report on social and emotional skills which notes that students’ sense of fitting in at school and student-teacher relationships are consistently and positively related to social and emotional skills. Students who feel like they belong at school are more likely to get along well and work well with their classmates and friends. Relatedness is a fundamental human need that is essential for psychological wellbeing, and this is particularly important in adolescence and the transition to young adulthood as social connections outside the family take on increased importance.

Throughout the first semester, our Executive team has been learning about and reviewing our policies and procedures as we ensure that Lauriston is compliant with the new Child Safe Standards which come into effect from July 1, 2022. Standard 3 gives attention to empowering children and young people about their rights, participation in decisions affecting them and being taken seriously. Within this Standard, the importance of friendships is recognized and support from peers is encouraged to help children and young people feel safe and be less isolated.

Peer relationships in adolescence
As young people develop autonomy from their parents, peers become more significant sources of social and emotional support. The beginning of secondary school is an important transition for adolescents and this change in the school context, can result in rapid changes in friendship groups and peer social networks. We know that adolescents can be strongly influenced by the behavior of their peers. Adolescents may engage in risky behaviors if they have friends who engage in these behaviors. Alternatively, high-achieving friends can influence adolescents’ own academic achievement and enjoyment of school.

Social connections and adolescent friendships can have the following benefits:

  • Higher functioning immune system
  • Better self-esteem
  • Lower rates of anxiety and depression
  • Happier and more optimistic outlook
  • Longer life expectancy
  • Stronger emotional self-regulation
  • Improved cognitive function
  • More empathy and feelings of trust toward others
  • Better ability to cope after a stressful event

While adolescent friendships are often established due to shared interests or backgrounds, others may be formed between individuals with very different backgrounds and interests. If the two young people are honest and trustworthy with each other, and they enjoy spending time together, then there is a strong likelihood that the friendship will develop and have a positive impact.

Maintaining connections

Children and young people learn many skills as they make and maintain friendships, including talking about what each need from the friendship, being flexible, sharing honest feelings and giving each other both time and space within the friendship. Children and young people learn to care about the feelings of another person when they are friends. While it is important to stand by a friend when they are facing challenges or there may be a period of conflict within their relationship, there is also a reciprocity within the friendship, rather than one individual who gives more than the other. Both young people need to be committed to being a friend to each other.

During adolescence it is normal for friends to outgrow each other, particularly as they move from the primary years to secondary school. Parents can encourage young people to think about the qualities that are important to them in a relationship. Friendships are more likely to last when teenagers have similar values and priorities and when they want the same things out of the friendship.

Sociologist and writer, Dr Anna Akbari, believes that when we are thinking about those individuals we want to maintain and continue to develop good friendships with that we need to ask:

  • Whom do I learn from? Is this person a positive influence or have something to teach me?
  • Who challenges me? Is this a person who will let me know when I am making a poor decision or not doing the right thing?
  • Whom can I confide in?
  • With whom do I find joy? Is this a person who will make me happy and add something positive to my life?

Researchers from the University of Virginia followed 169 people for 10 years, from the age of 15 years. At 15 and 16 years of age the participants were asked to bring in their closest friend for interviews with the researchers. They were asked how much trust there is, how good communication is and how alienated they felt in the relationship. Strong relationships between the peers were evident when they were open with each other about difficult topics and they were more engaged and wanting to connect with the other person.

When the researchers evaluated the participants at the conclusion of the study, those who had close emotional links showed improvement in their levels of anxiety, depression and self-worth. It may be that unwavering support acts as a kind of protective buffer against those things that may damage self-worth. Adolescence may be the first opportunity for young people to learn about how to trust and be vulnerable with one another and if these skills can be used to establish closer and more stable relationships throughout life, the individuals may have a better chance to continue to establish these types of friendships throughout their lives.

“The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Relationships at Lauriston

At Lauriston we foster the value of relationships and provide many opportunities for our girls to establish and maintain friendships with their peers. Our personal development program from the primary years gives attention to how to make and maintain friends and how to negotiate obstacles or barriers within friendships. Through our co-curricular program we encourage girls to have a wide set of social connections where they have the opportunity to make friends with peers who share their interests. Our Howqua program enables girls to get to know and make friends with those in their year group whom they may not know well. While learning more about their own character strengths, the girls are able to observe and identify the strengths of others, and also to be honest and open in sharing their feelings.

As our students enter the senior years of their education we observe their capacity to empathize with their peers, become more inclusive and build strong social connections. In their academic studies, the girls support each other with their learning, while in their co-curricular pursuits there is a culture of appreciating the contributions and skills of their peers. We observe a genuine desire to show appreciation when a girl performs well in her chosen co-curricular interest, whether this is sport, music or debating and they equally demonstrate willingness to step up and take part in a team or group.

We strive to encourage our girls to recognize that friendships can change our perceptions of challenging situations and that the presence of one or more friends can lower the stress levels of each individual. Researchers at the University of Virginia wanted to find out whether friendship influences how we approach the challenges of daily life. The researchers stood at the base of a steep hill situated on the campus and asked 34 students to help them with an experiment. Some of these students were by themselves while others were walking with a friend.

Each student was given a backpack filled with weights equal to about 20% of their body weight. The researchers asked them to estimate how steep the climb would be, but they did not invite them to climb the hill.

Interestingly, students who were alone perceived the hill slant to be steeper and thought it would be hard to climb with the weighted pack on their back. Students who were with a friend estimated that the hill looked easier to climb and provided lower estimates of its steepness.

When I read this piece of research I am reminded of how our Year 9 Howqua students learn to rely on the members of their hike and outdoor program groups throughout the year. The intention of these outdoor program groups is to promote the importance of everyone working together and hence help to alleviate stress and help individuals to perceive activities as challenging but doable.

Study groups of peers in Years 11 and 12 have a similar outcome in that when studying and working together, sharing resources and knowledge, the students feel that the work is more manageable, and their own understanding is possibly stronger than they had initially thought.

In her The Atlantic 2021 article, Amanda Mull wrote that the pandemic had evaporated entire categories of friendship because she no longer had daily interactions with co-workers or shared a conversation with the barista at her local café. In short, we each have strong and weak ties with friends and acquaintances. Stanford sociologist, Mark Granovetter, first came up with the concept of ‘weak ties’ which is comprised of acquaintances, people we seek out less frequently and those people with whom we share some familiarity. Mull’s point was that while close friendships are an important component to our overall wellbeing, casual friends and acquaintances also play an important role in creating social connections and wellbeing.

One important lesson from COVID is the value we need to place on nurturing our friendships, whether these are our close friends, those with whom we have active friendships and those with whom we have weaker ties.

We know that for our Lauriston girls, attending school each day and participating in co-curricular activities both inside and external to the school, are invaluable when making and maintaining friends. While friendship making and keeping may have stalled during remote learning and Lockdowns, there are opportunities available now for our girls to nurture friendships and look for new co-curricular activities which will enable them to broaden their social connections.

Susan Just, Principal