“There’s some research to indicate that one of the best indicators of how well adjusted we will be as adults is not based on IQ or grades in school, but the degree to which the child has good friendships.”
– Nick Long, Ph.D., Adolescent Psychologist
Parents worry about how much kids learn and how fast, but a child’s biggest worry is most likely something else: friends.
“Cause if anything is going on in school I always know that I can talk to Molly and she’ll understand,” says Meredith Albin.
The kids have got it right- learning the language of friendship is one of the most important lessons of childhood.
“There’s some research to indicate that one of the best indicators of how well adjusted we will be as adults is not based on IQ or grades in school, but the degree to which the child has good friendships,” says Dr. Nick Long, adolescent psychologist.
It’s not popularity, but learning to make friends that counts.
“I think that most people in this school want to have friends but they don’t know how to do it right,” says 11-year-old Johnathon.
By school age, a child needs at least one close friend, experts say.
“And if that child doesn’t have one close friend, it’s important for parents to try to set up situations for them to meet other children who might have similar interests to try to develop those relationships,” advises Long.
Psychologist Dr. Garry McGiboney adds, “It may take a while, but most of the time kids will enjoy that interaction with other kids.”
Kids without friends are at risk for lots of problems ranging from poor grades to depression, bullying, and drug abuse.
Experts say don’t underestimate the harm of isolation.
Fourteen-year-old Erica can tell you why: “Sometimes when you feel isolated and you feel like you should just be off this world. Just die.”
Tips for Parents
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says when teenagers begin to feel isolated and stressed out, it can lead to anxiety, withdrawal, aggression, physical illness and drug or alcohol abuse.
Why is a feeling of isolation so potentially dangerous? The AACAP says when we perceive a situation as difficult or painful, changes occur in our minds and bodies to prepare us to respond to danger. This response – what the AACAP calls the “fight, flight or freeze” response – includes a faster heart and breathing rate, cold or clammy hands and feet, an upset stomach and/or a sense of dread.
The AACAP says parents can do the following things to help their teens remain healthy:
- Monitor whether or not stress is affecting their health, behavior, thoughts or feelings.
- Listen carefully to teens, and watch for “overloading.”
- Learn and model stress-management skills.
- Support involvement in sports and pro-social activities.
If teens show signs of being overly stressed, it may be best to see a child and adolescent psychiatrist or qualified mental health professional. The following are signs that professional help may be needed:
- Disorientation and memory gaps
- Severe depression and withdrawal
- Substance abuse
- Inability to take care of basic needs (eating, drinking, bathing)
- Fear of harming self or others
- Inability to make simple decisions
- Excessive preoccupation with one thought
The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV) says that, despite the tragedy at Columbine and other recent events, schools shootings are still relatively rare. The center points out that school-related deaths since 1992 represent only about 1% of all youth killed with guns during that time period. The National School Safety Center says the odds of a child dying at school remain one in 2 million.
In addition, a study by researchers at the University of Maryland found schools that rely on “secure building” measures, such as cameras and metal detectors, show higher rates of reported victimization than schools that create an atmosphere of nonviolence. They found that clearly defined rules and consequences can be more effective in creating an atmosphere of safety than metal detectors and cameras. Students in schools where rules are emphasized and the consequences of breaking the rules are known to all reported less victimization and disorder.
The CSPV recommends that schools include these steps in their safe school plan:
- Create a climate of ownership and school pride.
- Enhance multicultural understanding.
- Be sure that all students have knowledge of school rules and consequences for breaking the rules.
- Add “hard looks” and “stare downs” as actionable offenses to the student code of conduct.
- Place students and parents on notice.
- Provide adequate adult supervision.
- Develop and enforce a school dress code.
- Provide teacher training in behavior management.
- Implement peer counseling and peer mediation programs.
- Create a student advisory council.
- Incorporate a life skills curriculum.
- Develop a student crime prevention program.
- The University of Virginia
- The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
- The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry