Joseph Allen, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, and his colleagues have been studying for decades the teen brain. In particular, he has been focusing on the impact of teen relationships and stress on adult romantic relationships.
Here’s what they’ve discovered in their latest research:
Having a best friend teaches you intimacy
Young teens – 13, 14 years old – often have close relationships with same-sex best friends, friendships that often continue through the teen years and beyond. While some parents overreact to these relationships – Is my son/daughter gay? – what these relationships provide, unlike early romantic/sexual relationships that are often unstable, are something important – a foundation for learning about intimacy, opportunities for being assertive and learning how to handle differences – all-important relationship skills. Having and sustaining these best-friend relationships in the teen years, the research shows, are a good predictor of successful adult romantic relationships.
So, looking back did you have a best friend in high school?
Having a broad range of friends
But it’s not only having best friends that makes a difference. Their research shows that the ability to have a broad range of friends also increases your overall social competence skills.
Here we can think about the teen couple who hook up at an early age and stay isolated, only spending most of their time with each other. By being isolated, and because these romantic relationships create a different dynamic, they miss those more neutral but important opportunities to build social skills. By having a wide range of friends you, again, learn to navigate a range of personalities and negotiate a range of problems.
Did you have a broad range of friends?
Teen stress leads to premature aging
Their studies tracked a group of teens starting at age 13 who struggled managing conflict and stress in their teen years. Blood samples were taken on the same group when they were 28. What they found was elevated interleukin 6, a marker for later cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, obesity, exercise, smoking, i.e., premature aging.
Other measures, such as the well-known ACE scores, tell us a similar story: that early childhood and teen trauma take their toll on later adult life.
Did you struggle managing conflict as a teen?
Cool kids struggled as adults
Teens who were seen as cool by their peers – the ones who acted up or out, who seemed older than their peers, were found to often struggle later as adults because, says Allen, “They were acting grown up too early.” What these teens were often missing was a solid foundation of responsibility, Allen believes, that comes from jobs, from doing chores at home. It is responsibilities, not being cool, that eventually makes for a solid adult.
Did you have responsibilities as a teen to help you develop solid maturity?
Navigating the social maze of high school
While some teens find a stable group of supportive peers through clubs, sports, etc., many do not – they suffer the emotional blows of falling in and out of various peer groups, and often develop “masks” to fit in and hide their true feelings. Schools, says Allen, don’t often provide enough steady supports to help these teens who are struggling to fit in, to help them remove those masks and be honest with themselves and others. As a result, they enter the adult world with unhealed social and emotional wounds that continue to impact them.
Did you struggle to find a supportive group in high school that allowed you to be you?
This research and findings tell much about how learning social skills, indeed, comes through navigating friendships, by having responsibilities. And those who miss these opportunities and/or are wounded by stress not only struggle in their overall adult relationships and health but specifically in their romantic relationships, as well.
Can you learn these missing skills as an adult? Absolutely. But the path may take longer, may seem harder. The research shows, once again, that the earlier the better, that the starting point is further back than we maybe acknowledge. As parents, as schools, there is a need to realize that the teen, and the child, really is the father or mother to the man or woman we eventually become.
- Kelly, J. Mapping the teenage brain. [email protected]