DAYTON, Ohio — The absence of a close friend may be one of the most important warning signs of a youngster who is vulnerable for psychological problems.
Peer relationships are important at any age, but particularly for preteens and adolescents. As with adults, friendships among kids are based on shared interests and values. We tend to be attracted to others with comparable backgrounds and beliefs who enjoy doing similar activities.
Friendships are not only enjoyable but can be a tremendous source of emotional support. They give youngsters the opportunity to share feelings and explore ideas that they can’t or won’t with adults.
The absence of a friend usually reflects some deficit in a child’s psychological development, insofar as friendships involve lots of skills that don’t come easily for many children. Navigating relationships is complicated as youngsters need to learn three skills that are essential for any relationship — compromise, communication, and caring.
Relationships inevitably involve compromise. The benefits of friendship come with the acceptance of the reality that you won’t always get what you want, so you’ll need to figure how to negotiate and compromise. This is tough for kids, many of whom are being brought up by parents who mistakenly put their kids as their highest priority. The world doesn’t work that way, and it’s challenging for many kids to realize that they won’t always get their own way.
Good relationships are based on compromise, resulting in each person feeling valued and respected. It’s not much of a relationship if you always (or never) get what you want.
Solid communication skills are also essential in any friendship. This means the ability and willingness to not only express your own thoughts and feelings, but be sensitive to the viewpoints of others. Lots of kids have a hard time with this, and may use silence or sarcasm to conceal their difficulties with using words to express thoughts. Many teen relationships go through a “drama” stage whereby a few unintentional words can have a devastating but temporary effect on a close friend.
The third important attribute of friendships involves caring. This means being sensitive to the feelings of others and at times putting their needs above yours. This is the magical moment of friendship, when you feel that special connection between you and another person.
When kids don’t have friends, I focus my attention on the child’s interactions with parents and siblings. This is the environment where kids learn about compromise, communication, and caring. Parents who excuse bad behavior among siblings or allow kids to be disrespectful at home are often responsible for their kids’ failure to develop the social skills needed for real friendships.
— Dr. Gregory Ramey is a child psychologist at Dayton Children’s Hospital.