We all need a little help from our friends, and that help may be invaluable to youths from low-income backgrounds. According to a new study, a single bestie can help a young person be resilient and thrive in the face of challenging circumstances.
The finding, published recently in the British Journal of Psychology, suggests schools and community centers should support peer-mentoring programs and create safe spaces for informal friendships, rather than fearing the oft-studied negative impacts of youth relationships, such as gang activity and the promotion of substance abuse.
“Kids are naturally helping each other by promoting good coping skills,” says Rebecca Graber, a psychologist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom who led the study. “We should be supporting and encouraging their friendships, not writing these kids off.”
A supportive family environment is one of the most important factors for the psychological well-being of children, but as young people grow up, the focus of their relationships often shifts from family to friends. Graber wanted to know how great an impact friendships have on the mental health of youths facing adverse circumstances, such as poverty, violence, and lack of access to education and nutritious food.
She and her team surveyed 409 students, ages 11 to 19, living in economically depressed areas of Yorkshire in northern England, including schools in the projects. They questioned students about the quality of their friendships and their actions in the face of difficult experiences.
Overall, those students with supportive best friends responded better to hardships. And Graber was surprised to find that it wasn’t due to the self-esteem boost that often comes from having friends, but to having someone who helped you deal with difficult situations.
Close friends, it turns out, encourage each other to put a bad situation in perspective and plan good future choices. That runs opposite of stereotypes that suggest friends encourage each other to get into trouble.
The effect was particularly strong for boys, dispelling the myth that friendships between boys are fraught with problems and tinged with macho masculinity. Instead, a bromance can be intimate and supportive, says Graber. “We need to value the natural, informal relationships that kids have.”