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Why Having a Best Friend Can Be Dangerous for Teen Girls

The unexpected downside of having a best friend forever

Tweens and teenage girls often have a BFF (best friend forever) with whom they communicate for hours every day in person, by phone, text, or chat. Most parents might assume the topics of their discussions are trivial and even boring; gossip about classmates or celebrities, complaints about teachers or school work, or dissecting fashion trends. But a new study in the journal Developmental Psychology found that what adolescent girls talk about might have a big impact on their mental health and even explain why teenage girls have much higher rates of depression than teenage boys.

Teenagers and Depression

Adolescence is an extremely challenging period in life, psychologically speaking and it is during these years that many mental health issues first erupt. For example, adolescents are six times more likely to develop clinical depression than younger children. The news is worse for girls as by the end of adolescence, 28% of girls will have experienced an episode of depression compared to 14% of boys, a 2:1 ratio.

What is it that accounts for this huge discrepancy in depression rates among teenaged girls and boys?

Scientists had traditionally attributed these gender differences to a variety of factors, both social and physical (such as girls maturing earlier). But a relatively new line of research is examining a new factor and finding that it has a much bigger impact on depression rates among teenaged girls than previously suspected—their friendships.

Specifically, studies have investigated what teenagers talk about with their best friends. They found that teenaged girls spend a disproportionate amount of discussion time focusing on problems and negative feelings and feeding off one another when doing so. They named this tendency co-rumination .

Co-Rumination and Depression

Teenage girls can spend hours rehashing problems, complaints, and concerns, dissecting them from every angle, and commiserating with one another about the negative feelings these issues elicit. Co-ruminating in this way, involves something that on the surface seems positive and useful—one girl responding to another’s distress by asking questions, validating her feelings, and encouraging further disclosure.

However, what makes this process damaging rather than emotionally healthy is the sheer amount of time girls can spend focusing on problems and negative emotions. Further, girls are much less likely to balance their ‘complaint-talk’ with problem-solving strategies that can help them identify how to better their situation.

Brooding about problems without including a problem-solving element is, by definition, what distinguishes unhealthy rumination from healthier forms of self-reflection (read The Seven Hidden Dangers of Brooding ). The massive amounts of time adolescent girls spend rehashing feelings of sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, rejection, victimhood, and others such negative emotions with their friend(s) can have a huge impact on their emotional well-being and sense of identity.

Amanda Rose from Miami University has been studying co-rumination for several years. In her most recent study, she and her colleagues followed adolescent girls over two years and found the more girls co-ruminated with a friend the more likely they were to developed symptoms of depression sooner than girls who co-ruminated less. In addition, among 34 girls who experienced an episode of clinical depression, girls who co-ruminated more intensely had more severe and longer lasting depressions than those who co-ruminated less intensively.

Guidelines to Help Your Teen Have Healthy Friendships

In case you’re wondering why adolescent girls would persist in a behavior that can make them feel depressed, there is a good reason. Amanda Rose also found that co-ruminating with a best friend is actually good for the friendship as it increases closeness and social bonding. In other words, there are aspects of co-rumination that are rewarding and feel good. These immediate benefits are much more apparent to teenage girls than the longer term threat of depression (which after all, they have no reason to attribute to the nature of their conversations with a best friend),

Therefore, parents and adolescent girls need to be aware of the hidden dangers of having long problem focused discussions with a best friend.

However, there are ways to prevent excessive co-rumination and lower the risk of depression. Parents can use the following guidelines to help their teen daughters find a healthy balance between complaint talk and active problem-solving strategies (my apologies to adolescent girls who are reading this article for not addressing you directly—for those who are, simply discuss the relevant steps with your friends and implement them yourself).

1. Consider sharing this article with your tween or teen daughter or summarizing the main findings for her.

2. Make sure to reassure her she is doing nothing wrong and that having a close friendship is, in principle, a great and important thing.

3. Let her know she can have all the benefits of having a best friend and minimize the downside and risk of depression by simply introducing the habit of devoting time to discussing how to manage the situations and difficult feelings she discusses.

4. Explain how discussing problem-solving, finding solutions, taking actions, and learning from past situations will make her and her friend feel just as close but it will also make them feel stronger, more empowered, it will improve their mood, and make them better able to handle similar situations in the future.

5. Suggest that if she and her friend are unable to come up with solutions and actions they should ask your advice and you will help them identify potential steps.

6. Suggest a practice session: Ask your daughter to choose a problem, even a fake one, and then discuss with her how to identify potential solutions and actions she could take.

7. Ask your daughter’s permission to email this article to the parents or guardians of her best friend(s) or ask if she would be willing to forward the article to her friend herself.

View my quite personal 17 minute TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:

For more about how to break the habit of brooding and rumination check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

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