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Why Teens Who Are Good Friends Become Great Parents

Adolescent friendships are a training ground for emotional and social skills.

Key points

  • Teens who showed more empathy for their close friends at age 17-19 were more supportive parents in adulthood.
  • A link was shown between having an empathetic mother and being a caring friend.
  • Having supportive friends in the teen years may compensate for growing up with harsh or unempathetic parents.
Source: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash
Three laughing teenage girls walk with their arms around each other's shoulders.
Source: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

Teenage friendships are usually fun, sometimes dramatic, and, if you’re lucky, grow into lifelong relationships. A new study, published today in the journal Child Development, shows these early friendships do something else, too: prepare teens for parenting.

A team of researchers at the University of Virginia followed 184 teens for more than twenty years, from age 13 into their mid-30s. The teens, recruited from seventh and eighth grade classes in a public middle school in the mid-Atlantic United States, were 54% female and 46% male and represented a variety of ethnic backgrounds (58% white, 29% African American, 8% mixed race, 5% other groups).

Each year, the teens chose their closest friend to participate in the study with them. In a structured lab setting, researchers watched how the teens responded when their friend asked for advice on a problem, then scored each teen’s behavior along four core dimensions of empathy:

  • emotional support (how much they understood and validated the feelings expressed by their friend)
  • instrumental support (how much help they offered to solve their friend’s problem)
  • emotional engagement (how much attention they showed their friend through active listening)
  • interpretation of the peer’s problem (how accurately they identified their friend’s primary concerns)

When 74 of the study’s participants eventually had children, researchers asked them to complete a questionnaire on their approach to parenting. Presented with twelve hypothetical situations where their child was expressing a negative emotion, they were given options of how to respond. Their responses were then coded as either supportive or nonsupportive.

Supportive responses included ones that helped the child feel better or offered potential solutions to their problem, while reactions like punishing the child for their display of emotion, minimizing their problem, or becoming upset over their distress were classified as nonsupportive.

The researchers found that the teens who showed more empathy for their close friends were more supportive parents in adulthood.

“We often think that our parents shape the way we parent, but it turns out that our teenage friendships do, too,” says lead study author Dr. Jessica A. Stern, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Virginia. “What we think is happening is that when you’re a
teenager, close friendships are an important ‘training ground’ for developing social skills and learning how to care for others in more mature ways."

“So, when your friend is struggling, you can practice showing up, trying to understand their perspective, empathizing with their plight, and offering help. By strengthening the ‘muscle’ of empathy with their best friends, teens are building essential skills that seem to translate to effective caregiving when they become parents.”

By showing care for their friends, teens may also create social support networks that last into adulthood and enable them to be more supportive parents.

The researchers also tracked how much empathy the teens who participated in the study received from their own mothers. Teens whose mothers were emotionally supportive when they were 13 years old typically treated their own friends empathetically and went on to become compassionate parents themselves.

For children raised by harsh or unsympathetic parents, though, caring teen friendships may actually be a way to interrupt intergenerational cycles of low empathy. The study showed that unsupportive parenting doesn’t doom children to callousness – uncaring parents can raise empathetic children, and relationships with caring peers in adolescence may be a way for teens to develop social and emotional skills that are missing in their home environments.

“Adults often underestimate the importance of teens being able to spend time with their friends,” says Stern, “but experiences in close, supportive friendships as a teenager are actually really important for healthy development. Our findings suggest that adolescent friendships may be an underappreciated but essential context for developing critical social skills like empathy, responding appropriately to difficult emotions, and even — later — parenting.”

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