Teens with similar levels of mental health are more likely to remain friends from one year to the next, according to a new study published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence. This appears to be the case whether the teens have good or poor mental health, as long as they are on the same page.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and collaborators investigated the degree to which “internalizing” mental health symptoms — such as anxiety, depression, social withdrawal and submissiveness — predicted the dissolution of teen friendships.

The research did not include externalizing symptoms (those which are outwardly expressed), such as anger or impulsivity.

The study involved 397 Connecticut students (194 boys, 203 girls) in 499 same-sex friendships, who were followed from grade seven (median age 13) to the end of high school in grade 12. Analyses were conducted using grade-seven peer, teacher, and self-reports of internalizing symptoms.

The findings showed no evidence that individual internalizing symptoms predicted the ending of friendships, even at extreme or clinical levels.

“An important takeaway from our study is that children’s personal struggles need not adversely impact their social relationships,” said Brett Laursen, Ph.D., a professor in the department of psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “Mental health issues do not necessarily ruin chances of making and maintaining worthwhile friendships.”

Instead, the findings reveal that the more friends differed on anxiety symptoms and depressive symptoms, the greater the likelihood of friendship instability. Therefore, teens with similar levels of mental health, good or bad, were more likely to remain friends from one year to the next.

“Behavioral similarity is tremendously important to a friendship,” said Laursen. “Shared feelings and shared experiences are the glue that holds a friendship together.”

Overall, boys and girls did not differ much in the factors predicting friendship instability. But there was one notable exception: differences in submissiveness made friendships more unstable in boys, but increased friendship stability in girls.

“Compared with girls, boys are more competitive and confrontational in interactions with friends, suggesting that dissimilarity on submissiveness may be a liability when it comes to the activities that many boys prefer such as sports and games,” said Laursen.

“Compared to boys, girls tend to favor extended dyadic exchanges, and so they may respond to submissive behavior with support and empathy, which may strengthen friendship ties.”

The psychologists conclude that friendship dissolution models should be based on a relationship perspective, shifting the emphasis away from traits that make individuals less desirable partners toward traits that make partners dissimilar, and therefore less compatible.

“When children are having difficulties making and keeping friends, it may be important to remind them about the importance of being similar,” said Laursen. “Too often, dissimilar friends become former friends.”

Source: Florida Atlantic University