Under the Hood

Mental Health Issues May Not Ruin Teen Friendships, But Dissimilarity Can

Do mental health struggles damage the stability of teenage friendships? Probably not if they are at similar levels between individuals, according to researchers from Florida Atlantic University (FAU).

In their latest research, behavioral dissimilarity was found to be a stronger predictor of friendship instability rather than the mere presence of psychopathological symptoms in a friend.

The study titled "Differences in Internalizing Symptoms Anticipate Adolescent Friendship Dissolution" was published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

The research team recruited nearly 400 adolescents (194 boys, 203 girls) residing in Connecticut, who were a part of 499 same-sex friendships. They were followed from grade seven till the end of high school in grade 12. 

"Discrete‐time survival analyses were conducted with Grade 7 peer, teacher, and self‐reports of internalizing symptoms as predictors of friendship dissolution across Grades 8–12," the authors wrote. 

Internalizing symptoms refer to symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, which tend to be experienced inwardly. Examples include feelings of fear, nervousness, self-consciousness, worrying etc.

The researchers failed to find any evidence that the internalizing symptoms themselves predicted the end of friendships, even when the symptoms were severe. 

Rather, it seemed differences between friends (in anxiety symptoms and depressive symptoms) were better predictors of instability in their friendship. This meant teenagers who shared behavioral similarities and resembled one another were more likely to remain friends from one year to the next.

According to co-author Brett Laursen, one of the important takeaways from the research is that personal struggles related to mental health may not always have an adverse impact on one's social relationships.

"Mental health issues do not necessarily ruin chances of making and maintaining worthwhile friendships," said Laursen, who is a professor in the Department of Psychology in FAU's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.

He added behavioral similarity is "tremendously important" to any friendship. Compatability between individuals is strengthened through shared feelings and shared experiences, which become the "glue" that holds the friendship together.

But when comparing male and female adolescents, the researchers did find a difference when it came to submissiveness. With this factor, differences increased friendship instability for boys and decreased friendship instability for girls.

Boys were more competitive and confrontational in interactions with friends, suggesting a dissimilarity in submissiveness could be disadvantageous. This applies given the typical activities boys engage in such as sports and games.

But girls were found to favor extended conversations and exchanges in comparison, being more likely to offer support and empathy to submissive behavior. This kind of response can strengthen the friendship between the individuals.

"When children are having difficulties making and keeping friends, it may be important to remind them about the importance of being similar," Laursen said. "Too often, dissimilar friends become former friends."