The Importance of Friendship
Friendship plays a vital role in our health from the early childhood years, all the way through older adulthood.
Ryan Hazelett and Michael Reisman, M.Ed.
“You’ve got to have friends,” writes Gail Joseph, Associate Professor of Learning Sciences for the University of Washington. “Early friendships are the most powerful single predictor of long-term adjustment.” This includes self-confidence, school success and overall health. Many of the social skills we develop during childhood directly impact our health and success through adolescence and adulthood.
When young children enter the classroom, almost everything and everyone in their environment is planned to provoke cooperation, communication and emotion among the students. Learning to work together with toys and materials helps children discover their own talents, opinions and feelings, as well as hear and learn about the same in each other. During the early childhood years (birth through age 8), the brain is at its greatest capacity to take in new social experiences and form views on how others think and feel (empathy), as well as be able to communicate the same about themselves. Step into any YMCA of Bucks and Hunterdon Counties early childhood classroom or school age child care program, and you will quickly observe this scientific miracle at play. Centers are set up in classrooms demarking a particular kind of play in each: block center for building, math center for exploring numerical and geometric materials and games, science center for looking through magnifying glasses at artifacts of nature, just to name a few. Through small group play in these centers, not only are the children exploring and practicing important academic subjects, but they are exploring the world of each other, and learning through trial and error how to find joy, support and success together.
The skills that begin to develop at this early age set the stage for all other social experiences and relationships to follow. Beginning with the earliest experiences of brief separation (from parents or primary loved ones), through first friendships, first loves, last loves, BFFs and acquaintanceships, our friendships influence and inform how we make sense of the world and our place in it.
“The ability to regulate one’s own emotions and manage successful interactions with other people is key for later academic performance, mental health, and social relationships.”
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child
During the adolescent years, the ability to make and keep friendships helps youth maintain positive self-esteem and avoid destructive behaviors. Friends who pick each other up, support one another to excel, and are there for the ups and downs are proven to ward off depression, drug abuse, alcoholism and self-harm among teens. Of course, for many teens, friendships are often their own ups and downs, and for some, the only ups and downs.
Much is said and written about the value of friendship. Even as adults our friendships challenge us to grow and evolve, and sometimes friendships dissolve, or worse, break up. Yet they are still very important. So vital, in fact, that there is substantial research concluding that having and maintaining adult friendships is a key physical health indicator as we get older. Adults with strong friendships are not only less likely to develop debilitating illness, but even live longer. The feel-good benefits of friendship can promote healthy body mass index (BMI), healthy blood pressure, and reduction in stress and depression. As of 2010, people with healthy relationships have half the risk of premature death from ALL causes.
Dr. Joseph is right. You’ve really got to have friends. Whether you're a preschooler, school-ager, teen, young adult, older adult or senior, you’ve got to get out there. So if you or someone you know would benefit from a little more social interaction, there are lots of opportunities to connect. Reaching out on one’s own to groups and communities can be daunting. Searching the internet can be overwhelming as well. Faith communities and local community college classes can be very safe spaces to be “new here,” depending on one’s comfort level in those environments. Your local YMCA likely fits the bill, and if your local YMCA is our Y, then we’ve got friends for you.
About the Authors:
Ryan Hazelett is VP of Child Care for YMCA of Bucks and Hunterdon Counties. Ryan holds an Associate’s Degree and Certificate of Achievement in Early Childhood Education as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education with a specialization in Leadership. Ryan has served the YMCA Community for over 10 years in the areas of Early Education and Youth Development.
Michael Reisman is Director of Communications for YMCA of Bucks and Hunterdon Counties. Michael earned a BA in Journalism from Rutgers University in 1997 and Masters Degree in Education from the University of Washington in 2011. Michael has served the YMCA community since 2017.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2022, January 12). Friendships: Enrich your life and improve your health. Mayoclinic.org.
Joseph, G., Strain, P. (2013). You’ve got to have friends. Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning.
Lang, K. (2022, July 23). What are the health benefits of friendship? Medical News Today.
Cuncic, A. (2021, January 7). 6 Benefits of Friendship. Very Well Mind.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2011, August). Children’s Emotional Development is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.