Children go through ups and downs like everyone else. But even in elementary school, some children are shy and awkward, and they can easily become social outcasts, anxious about social interactions and maybe a tad depressed. Normal adolescent angst can spiral out of control for these young people, taking them on a trajectory that can lead to major depression by adolescence — unless, research suggests, they have a simple but valuable asset: a friend.
Just one friend is enough, a new observational study suggests, to buffer an anxious, withdrawn child against depression. And it doesn’t have to be a particularly close friend — not an intimate or a confidant, as an adult would understand it, just some kind of social connection with someone their own age. Having at least one friend — defined as someone who counted them as a friend in return — seemed to put the brakes on the downward slide toward depression during the pre-teenage years.
Children who were completely isolated and had no friends at any point in the two-year study were at highest risk of sliding into depression as they made their way through the teenage years, said Dr. William M. Bukowski, professor of psychology at Concordia University in Montreal and lead author of the report, which was published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.
He suggests parents, teachers and schools are often so focused on academic achievement that they overlook a key tool to keeping children emotionally healthy through adolescence, something that may be more effective than medication or talk therapy. “Schools are naturally keen to promote kids’ academic achievement,” Dr. Bukowski said, “but friendship is something that teachers might want to pay attention to. It’s an important value. People have often said it should be the fourth R; that after ‘reading, writing, ‘rithmetic,’ it should be ‘relationships.’”
“For me, the real practical issue is one that may sound sort of simplistic, but since we all desire to prevent these problems from happening, one thing we need to be doing is putting a value on friendship for children,” he added. “When you look at the effect of certain mental health interventions, teaching children to manage their anxieties and changing the way children think about their experiences, and so forth — the effect of having a friend is so great that it wouldn’t surprise me to see that having a friend is going to be as powerful as the effect of some treatments. Just having one friend really pushed these at-risk kids right off the downward trajectory.”
The study observed about 230 boys and girls in the third, fourth and fifth grades in a small town in Maine, and followed them until they were in middle school in the fifth, sixth and seventh grades. The researchers assessed them three times, primarily through questionnaires filled out by the children themselves, repeated at 12-month intervals. The students were asked who their friends were, and researchers later cross-checked to see which of them had named each other, to verify that those children were indeed friends.
The students also assessed their classmates’ social skills, describing which peers had their “feelings hurt easily” or were “sad,” and whether they themselves felt shy or liked being left alone; researchers used the answers to assign scores to all the children.
Generally, the children who were social outcasts or shy and withdrawn were most likely to have a sad affect, and their depression snowballed over the next two years — generally, that is, unless they had a friend. If they had a friendship at any time during the study, their depression didn’t spiral out of control and their depressive affect declined. The friendship seemed to protect them and impart a certain psychological resilience.
“This study points to some things that those of us who work with adolescents especially know: by the time kids become depressed, they either have not had friends for a long time or they’re losing their friends,” said Dr. Anne Marie Albano, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University-New York State Psychiatric Institute. “And one of the things we do is try to activate them to engage with people. And the tougher kids to work with are the kids who didn’t have friends to begin with.”
Parents should pay attention if their children lack social interaction and not assume it’s something that’s “just a phase,” she said. But, she added, it’s hard to know which comes first, the sad affect and withdrawal or the lack of friends, and it’s possible the children in the study who had at least one friend were able to sustain a friendship because they were healthier to begin with.
Dr. Bukowski concedes that there comes a time in a child’s life when parents can no longer set up play dates and have to stand back from a child’s social life. But, he said, parents can still encourage friendships and talk to their children about how to develop and negotiate relationships.
“With older kids, the parent’s role changes, you’re less of a manager and more of a coach,” he said.
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