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The Role of Friendship Across the Lifespan

How do friendship needs change over time?

As girls and women move through their lives, their sense of self and their identities also shift their reference points in terms of social expectations. We are all social creatures and there is no doubt that we need to have healthy social relationships for maximum well-being. This usually involves social acceptance, as well. How does this play out over the lifespan?

Young Children

For young children, their peer groups are pretty much defined by same-aged peers in close proximity – neighborhood kids, children of their parents, children at their church, etc. As children move into primary school and middle school, there is a growing understanding of the social hierarchies in play. They begin to compare themselves or their friendship group to others in the same environment. This is where cliques and the desire to be a “popular kid” really begin to play a role in the development of self-esteem and self-identity.

Adolescents and Young Adults

Teenagers use their friends as virtual mirrors – we want friends who reflect the identities that we are seeking to cultivate. That’s why “mean girls” can be “mean” and their behavior is tolerated and endorsed – others long for the power that these girls wield. As we head into college or out of the teen years, our own sense of identity is more solidified and we are able to begin to look for friends who complement us, not just mirror us.

The 20s and 30s

During the 20s and 30s, there are a wide variety of diverse professional and social contexts in which women are expected to show up and perform. The energy required to meet these new commitments is often being balanced with the energy required to establish and maintain a significant romantic relationship, another typical focus of this period. These years can be filled with opportunities to move up the ladder, across the country, and into new clubs and organizations. Being able to create connections to people at the places where you are headed, when you arrive, and where you want to go next is often more valued skills than hanging onto relationships from the past.

The Motherhood Years

Whether or not she is employed outside the home, mothering is a 24-hour-a-day job, 365 days a year for a woman. Without a group of understanding and supportive friends, a mother’s mental and emotional health take a huge hit. As babies grow into preschoolers, the need for social support continues as mothers face what seems like a myriad of new challenges, new anxieties, and new questions as children develop. Connecting with other mothers whose children are the same age or a little older than our own is extremely helpful as it can sometimes seem as if no one but another mother would ever understand what we are experiencing. In addition to building and solidifying friendships with other mothers who can provide empathy and support, mothers also frequently rely on friends for a variety of instrumental support needs.

The "Truly an Adult" Years

Taking up new pastimes, letting go of old responsibilities, and having more freedom to spend your time as you see fit all provide opportunities to edit your social relationships as you desire. Existing friendships may deepen during this time as authenticity is easier to offer others, as self-judgment often decreases with age – women who are able to accept their own shortcomings and faults may also accept those of their friends when they are irrelevant to the relationship. On the opposite end of the spectrum, women may distance themselves from friends who have little to offer in terms of honesty, acceptance, or fulfilment of their end in the bargain of friendship. This is the period in which we trust our own wisdom and knowledge without needing to rely as much on others for validation or support.

Older Adulthood

During the final stage of life, our friendship circles undergo a significant decrease in size for a variety of reasons -- through illness, death, relocation, loss of mobility, and so on. We also are more aware of the value of each day and we consciously choose how to spend each hour and with whom. It’s also important to recognize that clinical depression and loneliness are often common among older adults who have experienced the shrinking of their friendship support groups. That’s why it’s important to encourage individuals to stay involved in church or other formal social networks and to keep active and involved in life.

Summary of Friendship Needs across the Lifespan

Early childhood: we need friends to play with and friends who are accessible. In the pre-teen/early teen years, we need friends who accept us and let us hang out with them at lunch and after school.

Late adolescence: we need friends who think like us, dress like us, enjoy what we enjoy – while we struggle with the challenges of developing our identities, we need to have our budding identity reflected and supported by friends.

20s and 30s: we are finding our way into our “adult identity,” so we need to develop a diverse group of friends to support up as we grow in our social and our professional lives. We need friends along the way and friends who make sense for the person we are becoming.

Motherhood Years: We need women who get what our life is like once we add a baby to the mix; whether it’s someone to comfort us when our toddler walks later than the neighbor’s or someone to pick up our sick child at school when we’re out of town, mothers need a friendly “village” to help them raise their kids.

Full-On Adulthood: we need friends who don’t waste our time, who challenge us to be better people, or to understand who we are without having to explain. We don’t have time to waste on superficial relationships that once might have claimed our energy.

Older adulthood: we need all the friends and social support we can get! Our friendship circles shrink dramatically during the last stage of life and loneliness and depression can result from isolation. It’s essential that we stay involved in social support networks, either retirement communities, church groups, or neighborhood groups.


Has technology and the busy-ness of the world changed the way that you engage with friends? Share your experiences in this survey: "Doing Friendship" in Contemporary Society


Degges-White, S., & Borzumato-Gainey, C. (2011). Friends forever: How girls and women forge lasting relationships. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield.

Degges-White, S., & Van Tieghem, J. P. (2015). Toxic friendships. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield.

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