Having A Best Friend In Your Teenage Years Could Benefit You For Life

Maria Fabrizio for NPR

This article was originally published on NPR.org.

David Thomas and I met when we were about 5 years old. We celebrated his 26th birthday last weekend, marking roughly two decades of friendship. Once, while walking down the street, a man looked at us and said, “Ain’t it Harold and Kumar!” He was almost certainly making light of our race, but perhaps he also saw how comfortable we were with each other. The comparison fits in more ways than one since David is my oldest and closest friend.

David is an M.D.-Ph.D. student now, and I’m a science reporter. We’ve both read research on the effect friendships can have on mental health, and a study published Monday in Child Development seemed particularly relevant to us. The research suggests that bonds from adolescence might have an outsized role in a person’s mental health for years.

“The findings are giving us some good evidence for the importance of adolescent friendships, not just short-term but into adulthood,” says Catherine Bagwell, a psychologist at Emory University’s Oxford College, who was not involved with the study. “We haven’t had too many robust, rigorous findings like this.”

The researchers followed 169 people for 10 years, starting when they were 15 years old. At age 15 and again at 16, the participants were asked to bring in their closest friends for one-on-one interviews with the researchers.

“[They were asked] how much trust there is, how good communication is and how alienated they feel in the relationship,” says Rachel Narr, the lead author on the study and a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Virginia. Each year, the original participants were also given questionnaires to assess levels of anxiety, depression and self-worth.

Narr says that when she watched videos made in the early years of the study of the teens asking their best friends for advice or support or talking through a disagreement, it was easy to tell which relationships were strong. “These teens tend to be open with one another about difficult topics, and they’re more engaged with one another and helping the other person and connecting with the other person,” she says.

Those strong relationships are paying dividends in adulthood, the study found. When the researchers evaluated the participants at the conclusion of the study, the ones who had close, emotional links showed improvement in their levels of anxiety, depression and self-worth. In other words, they reported less depression and anxiety and more self-worth at 25 than they had at 15 and 16.

“It surprised me how much better they were doing,” Narr says. While the researchers believe there is more driving the drop in depressive symptoms than just the friendships, they’re confident the strong relationships play a meaningful part.

Those who had more stable relationships — who brought the same best friend to the study at 15 and again at 16 — seemed to do the best, Narr says. The participants who didn’t exhibit the same kind of closeness with their friends didn’t show much change in symptoms of depression and anxiety or in their sense of self-worth over the study’s 10 years.

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