How Junior High Friendships Affect Adult Relationships

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Middle school is typically a time of chaotic emotions, confusing relationships and challenging growing pains. But it may also have a surprisingly lasting influence on the future.

In a study published in Child Development, researchers found that adolescents who were best able to negotiate the relationship minefield of finding friends and making sound behavior choices were most likely to be rated by their parents as successful both socially and professionally when they became young adults.

“We tend to think that peer relationships in early adolescence don’t mean that much, but that tends to be dead wrong,” says Joseph Allen, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “How well you do with peers as an early teen tells us a whole lot about how you manage in a lot of different ways as an adult.”

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Allen and his colleagues followed 184 youths from a public middle school in the Southeast, which included kids from both urban and suburban neighborhoods. They interviewed the teens’ parents as well as other adolescents that they identified as their closest friends annually for three years, starting when the participants were around 13. The authors followed up again when they were ages 20 to 23.

“What we’re finding is that the path is not straightforward, it’s more like a tightrope walk between trying to connect well with peers on one side and avoiding getting swept up into peer influences toward deviant behavior like delinquency and drug use on the other,” says Allen.

Indeed, the study showed that teens who best resisted peer pressure during junior high were less likely to engage in criminal behavior or to have alcohol or drug problems. Unfortunately, this ability to resist peer pressure can also be isolating; this same group also had fewer and weaker friendships as adults.

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Those who had the strongest interactions as adults, not surprisingly, were teens who walked a middle ground, remaining open to peer influence, but not allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by the pressure to conform. “Teens who can manage that well have strong close friendships as adults,” says Allen. “They’re better at negotiating disagreements with romantic partners when we observed them doing that. They are less likely to have problems with alcohol and substance use and less likely to engage in criminal behavior.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that when it came to the most common pressures during adolescence, such as smoking, drinking and trying drugs, these teens were abstinent. “The people who were best at connecting have a lower risk of problems with alcohol and drug abuse, but they actually drink slightly more,” Allen says. This confirms earlier research that suggested teens who were well adjusted didn’t always abstain entirely, but rather were able to avoid excess.

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“In terms of alcohol and drug use, the safest path would be to be more resistant of peer influences and slightly less connected, but that would then cost you in terms of your social relationships,” Allen notes. And being socially isolated could have negative health consequences. “The research shows that being socially isolated as an adult is as big a risk factor for dying early as cigarette smoking or obesity,” says Allen. “There’s no free lunch here.”

As with many behaviors and their consequences, there are tradeoffs. Teen drinking is obviously not socially desirable, but it could lead to fewer friendships that translate into isolation later in life. The complexity of these actions and reactions may in part explain why abstinence programs of any kind, whether for sex, alcohol or other drugs, aren’t particularly effective, since they come with a cost in peer connections and acceptance that teens aren’t willing to pay.

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The findings also highlight how important being accepted by their peers is to teens, and suggests that adults should take these adolescent priorities more seriously. “Many people think, ‘Why are teens so preoccupied with these relationships? They’re really no big deal.’’’ Allen says. “They’re preoccupied because these [early relationships] are precursors for how they will function in life socially for the rest of their lives. [Relationships] are critical to physical and mental health.” Rather than discounting them, it may be worth exploring how to improve them, while teaching teens to balance their desire for acceptance with an appreciation of associated risks.

81 comments
DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

Maybe it's my proclivity for turning things around and looking at the world from the other side of the mirror, but it seems to me that this "study" is basing its conclusions on the wrong thing.  It's not how "friendships" affect people as an adult.  It's how the personalities of the people involved choose to interact with their friends as they grow.  People choose their friends based on their own growing personalities.  Their friendships may reflect what happens to them later on, but that seems to me to be more of an effect of who they are, not a cause of why they turn out the way they do.

In other words, this study's conclusion seems to say that the wake of a ship determines the course the ship takes.  Frankly, I don't see their conclusions are appropriately placed, though, like a wake shows where a ship was and what direction it's going, this study does reflect how a personality will evolve as time goes on.

Little_Kristen
Little_Kristen

@mkhammer Well, that explains a lot about me. Nose in a book because everyone was too stupid to waste my time on. Same holds true now.

christian_ham
christian_ham

@mkhammer Uh-oh. "These [early relationships] are precursors for how they will function in life socially for the rest of their lives."

Hiraghm
Hiraghm

@mkhammer - OMFG... no wonder I'm a sociopath... I never went to "middle-school"! We only had JUNIOR HIGH schools when I went :(

Brittany_Graham
Brittany_Graham

@imDarrian I sincerely hope not! No desire to ever wear butterfly clips or purple leather pants ever again :)

useyourbrain
useyourbrain

The danger in the article's message is that 'well-adjusted kids' must drink to be 'well-adjusted'. I don't buy it. I've seen my 'popular-with-many-friend-peers',  drink or drug their way into prison, debauchery,  or early graves. Dangerous message you are planting. Rubbish. 

Leslie Schneider Boen
Leslie Schneider Boen

I think the researchers might want to broaden their definition of what makes you successful socially. Honestly, I was a very unpopular, uncool teen who was picked on a lot - and I did not conform to the typical teen behavioral mores. I obviously did not have a lot of friends - but the friendships I did have were deeper, stronger, and more meaningful than your typical teen friendships. And that has remained constant to this very day. I'm not the person who is at the center of every social gathering --and I don't want to be, because those interactions are superficial. Instead, I choose to have a small, close-knit circle of friends and explore these relationships very deeply. Couldn't this mean that I am just as socially successful as the cool, popular people, just differently?

Annie Paphanchith
Annie Paphanchith

i wish ppl would get off the school vs other schools colleges vs other colleges too. if u gain something u just gain something. point blank gah. but fair enough..? i did grow up in a comfortable setting..but with absent parents. i was cool and i thought of everything i could possibley do to stay away from the house though..involved in the extracurricular activities and all.. i wasnt really that cool but u know at least i dont sound like that dude below..one way or another of course it has an impact.

Annie Paphanchith
Annie Paphanchith

bittersweetly enough id say only my teachers had the most impact on me. i dont think i made it easy either they just didnt want to give up on me.id say music too but i dont go chasing them down and having interactions with them though or did. and if i had the chance i still wouldnt have cause i was a good kid other then the talking back and not shutting up.word.

Shafee Shafee
Shafee Shafee

Rich Private School vs Proper Home School vs Public School Slave Education

Seth Roach
Seth Roach

Sounds like my experience, but the researchers might want to increase their sample size and demographic data outside of the suburbs.

Mark de Graaf
Mark de Graaf

Sorry but this is a moment when it must be asked - Really? You only just realised that now?

Brad Winbush
Brad Winbush

middle school was hell. this article confirms my worst fears.

imDarrian
imDarrian

@Brittany_Graham Were purple leather pants all the rage? If so, that explains why you are always on trend pretty girl!

AnnaRopp
AnnaRopp

@LesleyHathorn I don't have a WSJ account, and it won't let me read the article. The title and first few lines were intriguing...

imDarrian
imDarrian

@Brittany_Graham OMG! Britney's red leather outfit à la Oops I Did It Again? You were on point...not surprised!